Open access peer-reviewed chapter

Effects of the Changes of Curriculum on the Coverage of Environmental Content in Geography

Written By

Sikhulile Bonginkosi Msezane

Submitted: 19 March 2022 Reviewed: 19 April 2022 Published: 27 July 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.104988

From the Edited Volume

Ecotheology - Sustainability and Religions of the World

Edited by Levente Hufnagel

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The South African education sector has experienced several shifts in the curriculum since 1994, thus affecting the coverage, teaching and examination of environmental impact topics in the South African Further Education and Training Phase (FET) phase. This chapter evaluates the effects of changes in curriculum on the coverage of education for sustainable development content in Geography. A qualitative research approach using an interpretative paradigm was employed in the documents used by Geography teachers in South Africa. The chapter used Margaret Archers, Realist Social Theory as a theoretical framework that guides data analysis and interpretation. Document analysis was the only method used where policy documents and examination papers were the instruments evaluated. The results show that environmental impact topics are covered in varying degrees in the South African CAPS curriculum. The level of coverage of environmental impact topics in the examination question papers fluctuates, sometimes to levels below those stipulated in the CAPS documents. The conclusion that can be reached is that the variable coverage of environmental impact topics in the examinations may have a negative effect on the way teachers address the topics of Geography. This resulted in an emergence of structural and cultural morphogenesis in the teaching of environmental content in Geography.


  • environmental education
  • education for sustainable development
  • geography
  • realist social theory
  • CAPS curriculum

1. Introduction

The purpose of this chapter was to analyse the coverage of policy and examination of environmental content EE/ESD in Geography in the Further Education and Training (FET) phase (Grades 10–12) of the South African education system. The study investigated whether there was alignment between policy documents and the Grade 12 past examination question papers’ coverage of environmental content, which were written from the years 2005 to 2015 during the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD). This period was chosen because it covered the time of the shifts in the school curriculum in South Africa up to the new Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) that was implemented in Grade 12 in 2012. This was also a period of international focus on sustainable development, and this should have had an influence on the school curricula.

The South African education system has undergone several curricula transformations since the dawn of democracy in the country in 1994. In this chapter, curriculum refers to the means and materials used by teachers and learners for the purpose of acquiring selected educational results [1]. Furthermore, [2] states that a curriculum involves learning activities that are fully controlled and implemented by educational institutions and educators, then done by the intended learners individually or in formed groups, inside or outside of the classroom environment. The purpose of the curriculum is to prepare learners to adapt and strive within the society in terms of educational change and growth [1].

In the school system, assessment is one of the most important aspects of a curriculum which determines whether learners have acquired the expertise and skills necessary to practice what they have been taught. In the South African education system, assessment is used to determine whether learners can be advanced to a higher grade. Teachers find themselves compelled to teach what is likely to be examinable at the end of the year examinations, which is part of the curriculum design postulated by [3]. arris contends that we are living in a volatile global environment that has evolving dynamism in response to impetus [4]. Harris further states that in the last century it has become apparent that humanity has taken control of the planet’s ecosystems and biochemical cycles in such a way that human activities are now causing environmental change [4].

More importantly, it was envisaged that due to curriculum changes, there might be a possible disparity between content coverage and actual examination in the Geography syllabi. Hence, this study investigated documents with regard to extent of environmental content in the curriculum. This study used a qualitative research approach, where Archer’s Realist Social Theory (RST) was the guiding framework [5]. Supporting this approach, documents and interviews were used as sources of data. This study focused on environmental impact content knowledge rather than the actual teaching practice, hence only documents were used as data.

This study attempts to close a research gap as few studies have investigated the extent of coverage of environmental content in the South African curriculum. This is seen where issues such as climate change are well covered in the policy documents, yet not much has been seen in translating this into the actual practice in the form of examination [6]. Most studies have focused on the effects of policies in teaching and adaptation of teachers to new policies [7].


2. Literature review

The South African education system has frequently changed since gaining independence in 1994 resulting in the curriculum change that was problematic in its implementation. These challenges were caused by the complexity of the implementation programme and the capacity of teachers to adopt new teaching strategies in the classroom. The curriculum has undergone multiple variations, from Curriculum 2005 (C2005) to the Revised National Curriculum Statement (RNCS), to the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) Grade R–12, and then, in 2011 to the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements, commonly known as CAPS. The transformation of the curriculum in South Africa focused on the content, teaching methods and assessment [8].

2.1 Importance of EE/ESD coverage in the curriculum

Currently, the Earth is in the Anthropocene era where human-derived environmental crises have taken centre stage due to their global extent to the point that they can no longer be avoided. Our impact on the environment is threatening not only biodiversity but also the very existence of humankind itself. Climate change and global warming are recent phenomena that were not part of the curriculum in the past, yet we are already feeling the effects of climate change locally and globally. Therefore, it is against this background that environmental impact topics need to be sufficiently covered in the curriculum, in teaching and learning processes and in examinations to ensure that values and principles of sustainable development are encouraged. Natural resources are important to every living organism, and they should be utilised without being depleted to satisfy human livelihood. Unsustainable human exploitation of natural resources, pollution and degradation result in negative environmental impacts that consequently have negative implications on biodiversity, ecosystems, the physical environment and, subsequently, human development and livelihood sustenance. For this reason, it is important to ensure that environmental impact topics are sufficiently covered in the curriculum [9].

Moreover, since the Industrial Revolution, the rapid development of society has resulted in many global environmental problems such as global warming, a rise in sea levels, ozone depletion, air and water pollution, land degradation, destruction of wetlands and deforestation [10, 11, 12]. These environmental problems outlined above can be partially addressed through a school curriculum that includes a consideration of environmental impact topics across all levels from policy to implementation. Therefore, teaching of environmental impact topics through EE/ESD and its alignment to curriculum policies is the focus of this study.

The efficient utilisation of the world’s natural resources is one of the important themes of AGENDA 21, “A global action plan for environmental impacts into the 21st century” [13]. The precious natural resources of the planet are being depleted and degraded at a rapid rate. Sitarz notes that the Earth’s limited supply of natural resources and its inability to recover from degradation were not taken seriously in the past [14]. The rapid increase in population and the accompanying human activities in the last century have placed extreme stress on environmental resources. As a result, Hill et al. [9] point out that, in 1993, a National Environmental and Planning Agency was formed in some European countries to promote EE/ESD activities through environmental impact programmes. In South Africa, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play an important role in ensuring that the ruling government upholds EE/ESD where, in 1975 for example, the Umgeni Valley Project encouraged the development of EE/ESD practice and theory in the country [15].

It is generally accepted that there are limits to both the Earth’s resources and its capacity to handle the environmental impacts caused by humans [14]. Thomas-Hope reveals, for instance, that the environmental impacts of solid waste which is disposed of at landfills and cannot cope with such disposal contribute greatly to land degradation [16]. This human activity is evident in the global arena where the effects of cumulative negative environmental impacts on the environment are experienced. In addition, [12] emphasises that human activity is a factor that has important impact on the environment, even in remote areas, since the onset of the Holocene era. Goudie and Viles further argue that it normally takes some time for the causes of environmental impacts to become apparent and this makes the causes hard to identify [17]. They also associate environmental changes with human impacts which go together with natural fluctuations to create massive and unpredictable changes in the environment.

Against this background, it is essential that the global resources of land, freshwater, marine, biological, genetic resources and energy are protected [14]. Human development must be achieved in a way that improves productivity to meet global demand for goods and services while sustaining the Earth’s natural resources. Educating future generations is important to expose them to environmental issues that are detrimental to the environment, which sustains human existence. Depletion of natural resources through unsustainable resource extraction has often been associated with population growth, which was estimated to have reached 7.9 billion people globally by 2022 [18]. Population growth and development can lead to violence since people affected by shortages of natural resources believe that they are unfairly treated in the distribution of basic needs such as food [19].

2.2 Environmental content aspects in the curriculum

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, local, regional and global environments are being gradually degraded by mostly human-induced (manmade) as well as non-human induced activities. Therefore, it is important to perform research about the coverage of environmental impacts in the curriculum due to the continued lack of realisation of the unsustainability of human actions on the environment and their implications on human livelihood. Hence, it is important to respond to these environmental impacts through education, which should incorporate EE/ESD themes in the curriculum and across all subjects. Coverage of environmental impact topics in the South African school curriculum should be accessible to the younger generations who will have informed knowledge on how they could preserve resources for future usage by acquainting themselves with environmental knowledge embedded in the documents. Therefore, documents such as Grade 12 textbooks, examination papers and CAPS must be aligned to important practices that aim at EE/ESD. This study aims to provide an assessment of what is being projected by policy on environmental education and what is being practised in the Geography subject.

Carvello in her study of an assessment of the role of eco-schools in achieving whole school development through sustainability education highlighted some evidence of EE/ESD in the NCS in subjects such as Business studies, Consumer studies, Life Orientation, Agricultural Sciences, Tourism, Mechanical Technology and Economics [20]. Carvello study was done before the CAPS curriculum was implemented and does not analyse the alignment between policy and practice [20]. On the other hand, [21] in her study of an investigation into issues and challenges in implementing environmental education in special schools in South Africa, states that the constant changing of the curriculum in a very short period confuses teachers. Her findings point to a situation where teachers are unable to cope with the changes that have been affected in the curriculum. Similarly, [7] points out that South African teachers are frustrated by curriculum policy changes, where teachers indicated that since 1994 there have been many curriculum changes where some policies have been repealed before they could be implemented.

In addition, [21] study further reveals that teacher’s views about the environment are very superficial, and they confuse EE/ESD with nature studies or nature conservation, which influences the way they teach. Furthermore, [7] reveals that teachers indicated that they find it difficult to integrate EE into the curriculum because they were not fully trained on how they could use EE concepts in the classroom. Zwelibanzi [21] is of the opinion that an exploratory study could be conducted on how to enhance teacher’s pedagogical and content knowledge regarding EE through in-service and pre-service training. She further recommends that survey studies should be conducted on teacher’s knowledge and perceptions about constructivism that underpins CAPS. Some studies provided important findings of the integration of EE/ESD in the school curriculum, teachers’ discourse, practices, political, economic and social dimensions of EE, different EE approaches, environmental behavioural changes, pre-service teacher training and assessing environmental competency [22, 23, 24, 25].

When reviewing literature on EE/ESD in South Africa, most of the studies conducted research on integration, teacher practices, pedagogical and content knowledge, different EE approaches, behavioural changes and assessing environmental literacy [7, 20, 21]. However, none of the studies was about the alignment and extent of EE/ESD coverage in curriculum policy and in the examinations. It is against this background that this study analysed the coverage, teaching and examinations of environmental impact topics in the FET curriculum. In addition, this study analysed how the shift of the curriculum has affected coverage of EE/ESD topics.

The approaches used in South Africa to include ESD in the curriculum are an issues-based approach and a fragmented approach [26]. The extent and depth of coverage of ESD content in the curriculum is dependent on the subject. Some subjects have greater coverage of environmental content than others do [26]. However, the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) requires teachers to integrate aspects of environment and sustainable development into almost all subjects as seen in Table 1 for example.

Phase and subjectBiodiversity and ecosystemsSustainable developmentWater system and security
FET Agricultural SciencesPlant studies;– Components of ecosystem; The biomes of Southern Africa; Ecology and agro-ecology; Interactions in ecosystems and ecological farmingSustainable utilisation of natural resources; Farming systems that use agro-ecological principlesWater quality and management; Sustainable use of water in agriculture; Water use/irrigation
FET GeographyThe concept of development; Effect of development on the environment; Using resources; Effects of using more non-conventional energy sources on the South African economy and the environment; Energy managementWater in the world; The world’s oceans; Water management in South Africa; Floods; Drainage systems in South Africa; Fluvial processes; Catchment and river management
FET Life SciencesBiosphere to ecosystems; Biodiversity; The role of invertebrates in agriculture and ecosystems; Population ecology; Human impact on the environment; Current crises for human survival; Loss of biodiversityWater (availability and quality)

Table 1.

Mapping some of the key EE/ESD knowledge areas/themes in the south African school curriculum.

Source: [26].

According to the UNESCO Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development, ten SADC countries experienced challenges in integrating and implementing EE/ESD in teacher education. These challenges were:

  • ESD is not very obvious in curricula and assessment.

  • The school syllabus is too long and hence educators rush over ESD issues.

  • Lack of clear policy on ESD integration.

  • Lack of teaching and learning support materials.

  • Lack of a whole system approach during the implementation and

  • Inadequate support from management and financial support.

2.3 Teaching EE/ESD topics in selected countries

This section shows overview of EE/ESD in selected countries. These countries were selected to show how other countries apart from South Africa EE/ESD is integrated into the curriculum.

2.3.1 Taiwan

According to [27], curricula and teaching methods adopted by elementary and junior high schools in Taiwan affected the outcomes of EE. Yang gives the following example: at elementary schools, social science and nature and life technology textbooks typically contain and mention nature and environmental issues but fail to teach much beyond natural aesthetic appreciation. Lessons typically focus on students’ semantic analysis and rhetoric skills, and the teachers are more concerned with the appreciation of poetry. Yang [27] remarks that the Chinese use nature to understand the beauty of literature, and do not pay attention to nature itself. In Taiwan, social studies, nature and life technology involve a large coverage of geographic and natural environmental content, yet this content is based on knowledge without any real appreciation of environmental issues and rather focuses on the aesthetics of nature. Yang [27] argues that although elementary school learners do not experience substantial academic pressure, environmental awareness cannot be achieved solely by studying the written content of teaching materials.

2.3.2 New Zealand

Irwin and [28] recognise that currently, there is no curriculum requirement to teach EE in Aotearoa, New Zealand. They admit, however, that it is entirely at the discretion of individual schools and their school governing bodies to incorporate EE in their curriculum, although the environmental guidelines recommend using a whole-school approach across multiple learning areas. They indicate that while EE operates both within and outside of the national curriculum. This is done because the vision and future focus of the curriculum requires all subjects to integrate key socio-cultural and environmental aspects relating to sustainability into the learning process [28].

2.3.3 Australian

‘Education for sustainability develops the knowledge, skills, values and worldview necessary for people to act in ways that contribute to more sustainable patterns of living’ [29]. In Australia, there is an increased emphasis on sustainability in education supported by a series of government initiatives, policy statements and whole school programmes. This has led to environmental impact topics being embedded in all school learning areas [29]. The increase of environmental impact topics in the curriculum has presented challenges in efficacy and content knowledge.

2.3.4 Namibian

EE in the Namibian curriculum is embedded in all subjects. According to [30] study, environmental learning is integrated across the curriculum where incorporating environmental topics requires knowledgeable teachers to relate these topics to the environment. This is a similar case in South Africa where EE is embedded across the subjects in the curriculum. The analysis of Namibian inclusion of EE in the curriculum revealed that more emphasis is on the Biology syllabus. This is almost the same scenario in South Africa where more emphasis of EE is in Life Sciences.

2.3.5 Zimbabwe

In 1999, the Presidential inquiry into education and training recommended the integration of EE into the school curriculum [31]. This led to EE being developed to influence policy, which then led to the integration of EE in all learning institutions at various levels in the formal and non-formal sector [32]. In the curriculum of Zimbabwe, EE is done in carrier subjects such as Natural Science, which covers only the biophysical aspect of the environment. Curriculum greening was then suggested as one of the platforms that can be used to disseminate EE across the curriculum [32].

2.3.6 Botswana

In Botswana, EE integration in the curriculum traverse’s subject boundaries, thus allowing teachers to collaborate on cross-syllabi content [33]. Subjects in the curriculum are interconnected with the intent of infusing integration in the development of schoolchildren’s concept of EE [33]. Despite government efforts for curricular integration, it is the responsibility of the teachers to integrate environmental content in their classrooms. Against this background, integration of EE in Botswana is implemented across all school subjects. Velempini [33] mentions that there is misalignment and continuing confusion on what the policy stipulates and how implementation is accomplished in schools.

2.3.7 Zambia

In Zambia, EE is covered in the lower, middle, and upper basics of the schooling system. EE is covered mostly in subjects such as Geography, History, Social Studies and Religious Education [34]. According to [34], EE is covered as components in the various subjects and that has implications on teacher competence because there are no experts specifically trained in EE as a discipline.

2.4 Integration of EE/ESD in the south African curriculum

In South Africa, the South African National Curriculum Statement (Grade 10–12) mentions that all subjects must contain integrated environment and sustainability content [8]. All the subject areas have a varied extent and depth of coverage of ESD content in the curriculum. Therefore, the (CAPS) requires teachers to integrate aspects of environment and sustainable development into all subjects. This curriculum integration is informed by the 1995 White Paper on Education and Training that stipulated integration of environmental education for sustainable development into all levels and phases of the education and training system [26]. The approaches used in South Africa to include ESD in the curriculum are an issue-based approach and a fragmented approach.

According to the White Paper on Education and Training of 1995, EE/ESD in the curriculum must involve an inter-disciplinary, integrated and active approach to learning (DoE, 1995). EE is a vital element of all levels and programmes of the education and training systems in order to create environmentally literate and active citizens and ensure that all South Africans enjoy a decent quality of life through the sustainable use of resources [8]. From the above statement, it is important to note that EE/ESD in South Africa is implemented in all sectors of education and in the CAPS curriculum; it is embedded across all subjects.

However, the Department of Basic Education is not the only role player in EE/ESD in the country; the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) also plays an important role in EE and ESD. For instance, in 1997 the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) developed the White Paper on Environmental Management Policy, which consisted of seven strategic goals. Goal 5 is Environmental Education and Empowerment, the strategy being to promote the education and empowerment of South Africa’s people to increase their awareness of and concern for environmental issues, and to assist in developing the knowledge, skills, values and commitment necessary to achieve sustainable development (DEA, 2017). Goal 5 is supported by the following objectives based on education and training:

  • To integrate EE in all programmes, levels, curricula and disciplines of formal and non-formal education and in the National Qualification Framework.

  • To integrate EE into all training and unemployment relief programmes.

  • To enhance environmental literacy using forms of media.

  • To ensure that EE programmes and projects foster a clear understanding of the inter-relationship between economy, social, cultural, environmental and political issues in local, national and global spheres.

In support of DEA’s Goal 5, CAPS principles also emphasise the importance of the inclusion of EE into the curriculum, where one of the principles highlights human rights, inclusivity and environmental and social justice as defined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa [8]. CAPS advocates infusing these principles and practices into the curriculum. Therefore, the National Curriculum Statements Grades R-12 is sensitive to issues of diversity such as poverty, inequality, race, gender, language, age, disability, and other factors [8]. The section below discusses some guiding principles in EE implementation. In the South African curriculum, integration of environmental impact topics is across all subjects as mentioned in this section. As seen in Table 1, in Geography the following EE/ESD content is covered, these include the concept of development, effect of development on the environment, using resources, effects of using more non-conventional energy on the South African economy and the environment and energy management, water in the world. Furthermore, environmental topics included the world’s oceans, water management in South Africa, floods, drainage systems in South Africa, fluvial processes and catchment and river management.


3. Theoretical framework

Realist Social Theory (RST) is the framework that underpinned this case study research In this study RST is premised on both theoretical and methodological framework approaches. As [35] and [36] explain, knowledge is socially produced, and it warrants exploration of social interests and the related dynamics of power as individuals seek understanding of the world in which they live and work. The global environmental crisis is a real social problem as evident in its impacts such as depletion of the ozone layer, rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, global warming, deforestation, climate change, pollution and improper toxic waste disposal. Hartas [37] suggests that individuals create their own realist meanings of their experiences through interactions with each other and with their surrounding environment. In this study, the interactions studied occurred within school environment and were supported by different structures and agents such as documents, teachers, learners, and external support such as training programmes. The theoretical framework of this study comprised the interactions and roles played by structure, culture and agency in the integration of environmental impact topics in the curriculum (see Figure 1). The study is premised on the critical realism paradigm where most scholars agree with the ontological claim that social reality is stratified and emergent [38, 39]. For example, one cannot study the coverage of environmental content without analysing all the important documents such as policy statements, examination papers and textbooks.

Figure 1.

Realist social theoretical framework used in this study.

3.1 Ontological and epistemological assumptions

The researcher adopted a realist orientation towards the research whereby the interaction with educational structures such as documents during the study evoked a new niche and spaces that are deemed necessary in providing ideal solutions to the enquiry being conducted. According to RST, the reality is not an independent construct but is socially constructed and has varied meanings. The RST ontology followed by this study is that there is reality of the world (environmental content), however, the interpretation of reality is in the human mind and is conditional upon individual experiences and interpretations [40]. The research also adopted an epistemological approach where knowledge is considered subjective and constructed by people. In this research, knowledge was accumulated from the FET curriculum (CAPS), teaching and learning support materials, and examination documents.


4. Problem statement

The underpinning assumption in this research is that teachers’ views on the content and nature of environmental impact issues are complex and founded upon implicit theories and personal practical knowledge. Environmental impacts have negative implications of global proportions. Negative human impacts on the environment threaten not only natural resources such as water, air and land but also the very existence of humanity itself. The education sector plays an important role in ensuring that younger generations develop appropriate skills, knowledge and principles for sustainable living. Furthermore, the changes in the curriculum can be linked to shifts in content coverage in the examinations, thus the study investigates the extent of such changes for environmental content. Further to this, it is also against the assumption that teachers tend to teach and put more emphasis on topics that are frequently examined at the end of the year examinations, leaving behind topics that are not consistently being examined, thus creating a knowledge gap in the learners.

Le Grange [41] argues that the new language of education involves risk and that the risk is compounded when the environment is added into the equation. According to [41], environmental problems are complex, and today’s solutions could become tomorrow’s problems. Human civilisation has brought about the current modern era and the associated imbalance between natural resource utilisation and sustainability of the Earth. Le Grange [41] further believes that the complex and contingent nature of environmental problems and their associated risk cannot be captured in a few learning outcomes set out in the curriculum in South Africa. Le Grange [41] states that the previous South African curricula such as the NCS (Grade 10–12) did not include the environment as a key component but created space for EE/ESD processes to be included. In CAPS, assessment is one of the major aspects used to determine whether learners have reached a level of competence to progress to a higher grade and teachers put more emphasis on the content that is likely to be examined at the end of the year. This has led to my investigation of the integration of environmental content aspects in Grade 12 Geography examinations and policies.


5. Research question

To what extent are environmental education/education for sustainable development topics being covered in teaching and learning documents used by teachers and learners in Geography Grade 12 curriculum?


6. Research methodology

Creswell [36] and McMillan and Schumacher [42, 43] state that research methods comprise types of data collection, analysis and interpretations for a study.

6.1 Sampling of documents

Documents such as the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS), and past examination question papers were in the analysis. Documents consisted of the following:

  • Past examination question papers (2006–2015): These past examination question papers fall within the decade of education for sustainable development. The question papers were purposefully sampled and only those subjects that were taught in the schools where participating teaches for this research taught were analysed. Geography was chosen due to it being selected by the DBE (2016) as one of the eleven key subjects in the South African education system.

  • CAPS documents for the subject mentioned above.

6.2 Analytical study profile

This section shows tables of document analysis profile. These documents analysed involved CAPS policies and Grade 12 exit level past examination papers.

6.3 CAPS policy documents

The content analyses of the study focused on the Geography content in the Grade 12 curriculum. As shown in Tables 2 and 3, the source where data was retrieved and the actual data that was required to answer the main research question of this study.

Subject policy documents analysedSourceData required
GeographyDepartment of Basic education: Accessed August 2016Total number of topics, Total number of environmental impact topics.
Tuition time allocation for all the topics in the exams (weeks).
Time allocation for environmental impact topics (weeks).
Percentage time allocation of environmental impact topics (%).
Mark allocation of environmental impact topics.
Percentage coverage in the examination of environmental impact topics.

Table 2.

CAPS subject policy analyses.

Subjects analysedSourceTimeDateData required
GeographyDepartment of Basic education: Accessed August 2016T1 (RNCS) T2 (CAPS)2006 to 2015 (Decade of Education for Sustainable Development)Exam year. Marks allocated for environmental impact topics out of 300 (Paper 1 and Paper 2). Percentage coverage of environmental impact topics. Average (RNCS vs. CAPS)

Table 3.

Comparison between RNCS and CAPS coverage of environmental impact topics.

6.4 Grade 12 past examination papers

Table 3 below also shows T1, which is the time during the old curriculum (RNCS) and T2, which is the new curriculum (CAPS).

Document analysis involves skimming, reading and the interpreting the documents [44]. Content analysis in this study involved the identification of meaningful and relevant information on environmental impact topics. The researcher identified important information and separated it from that which was not pertinent (See Figure 2) using three stages of data collection, pre-processing and content analysis. In this study, the researcher drew upon [46] and the [47] Environmental Outlook report for the identification of specific EE/ESD content that formed the basis for content analysis. The coverage of EE/ESD topics included the following: ozone depletion, global warming, energy consumption, acid rain, air pollution, marine pollution, mineral resource depletion, soil destruction, soil erosion, desertification, biodiversity loss, extinction of plants and animals, nuclear reactors and waste disposal, human health and diseases, world hunger, land use, solid waste disposal, hazardous chemicals, habitat destruction, invasive species, water quality and wildlife management. When evaluating documents, it is necessary to establish the meaning of the document and its contribution to the issues being explored [44]. In addition, the researcher determines the relevance of documents to the research problem and purpose. The documents selected for analysis in this research were authentic, credible and contained accurate data. The documents provided coverage of the research topic broadly. Bowen [44] explains that document analysis is a process of evaluating documents in such a way that empirical knowledge is produced and understanding is developed. Moreover, the researcher should strive for objectivity and responsiveness.

Figure 2.

Procedure of document analysis. Source: Adopted from Rhie, Lim & Yun [45].

The document analysis was guided by the constant comparative method of [48], which is described in four stages, namely: comparing incidents applicable to each category; integrating categories and their properties; delimiting theory; and writing theory. This method involves a back-and-forth interplay with data to cluster ideas and concepts for authentic understanding and analysis of the documents.

6.5 Trustworthiness, transferability and dependability

The researcher used a multi-method strategy in collecting data to ensure that the study was rigorous one of the methods was document analysis. According to McMillan and Schumacher [42], multi-method strategies allow for the triangulation of data and may yield different insights into a topic of interest, thus increasing the credibility of results. Document analysis schedules were pre-tested in a pilot study before they were used to verify whether they were appropriate.


7. Results and discussion

The results and discussions will start with EE/ESD contents found in the old policy document which is called National Curriculum Statement (NCS). In addition, an analysis of the changes brought by the new CAPS curriculum which affect EE/ESD Implementation is discussed. The effects of the shift of the curriculum from old NCS (Grade 10–12) to new CAPS curriculum are discussed. Lastly, the extent of coverage in the Policies and Examinations of EE/ESD between RNCS and CAPS analysis is deliberated.

7.1 EE/ESD content found in the grade 12 geography old NCS curriculum

Geography was defined as a science that studies physical and human processes and spatial patterns on Earth in an integrated way over space and time (DoE, 2003:9). It examined the spatial distribution of people and their activities, physical and human-made features, ecosystems and interactions between humans, and between humans and the environment in a dynamic context. Some of the aims of Geography which encourage EE/ESD are to (Table 4):

  • Develop knowledge and critical understanding of the changing nature and interrelatedness of human existence and the environment over space and time.

  • Prepare learners to become informed, critical and responsible citizens who can make sound judgements and take appropriate action that will contribute to equitable and sustainable development of human society and the physical environment. Geography prepares learners to become responsible and competent decision-makers and agents, living and working in a complex world. It encourages them to challenge and address social and environmental injustices.

SubjectLearning outcome (LO)Key EE/ESD themes/concepts
GEOGRAPHYLO 2: The development of knowledge and understanding
LO 3: The application of knowledge and skills
  • Firstly, Geography studies show how spatial patterns and processes affect the way people live and interact with the environment, how physical and human processes shape the environment, and how humans interrelate with the living and non-living environment. Therefore, learners will be expected to demonstrate a fundamental knowledge of physical and human processes and the patterns which result from them, as well as the interactions between humans and the environment on local and a national scale.

  • Secondly, Geography seeks to understand human-environment interactions. Human actions modify the environment at different scales. Likewise, the environment and the availability of resources in regions and places shape human activities and lifestyles, and ultimately their well-being. In addition, it is concerned about how people depend on, adapt to and modify environments, and gives consideration to the consequences of human actions.

  • Lastly, learners will also be encouraged to recognise and appreciate values, attitudes and indigenous knowledge held by individuals and groups, to examine the consequences of their actions, and to make informed, logical decisions.

Climate and weather:
  • Human-made climates (urban climate).

  • Climate hazards and human response to these – risk and vulnerability.

Fluvial processes and landforms
  • Slopes: types, characteristics and significance for human activity.

  • Mass movements and human responses.

People and places: rural and urban settlement
  • Human-environment interactions in rural settlements:

  • Settlement issues: rural depopulation, closure of services, ageing of population, political influences, governance of rural settlements (local authorities, Agenda 21).

  • Human-environment interactions in urban settlements:

  • Settlement issues: inner-city problems, renewal, urban blight, congestion, pollution and land use conflict, standards of living, political influences

People and their needs
  • Response of people to environmental and socio-economic injustices linked to economic activities

  • Distribution and supply of water to South African citizens.

  • Sustainable use and management of water.

  • Impact of the change of location of economic activities on people

Table 4.

Environmental content found in the grade 12 geography old NCS (grade 10–12).

The scope of Geography was to emphasise the integration of physical and human geography. In the past, these components of Geography had been treated as separate elements. However, a study of physical processes that influence soil erosion, for example, must consider how human activities on the land also contribute to the process. The geographer needs to know why soil erosion is occurring and should understand the social, political and economic circumstances that may cause people to influence the rate of soil erosion in a place or in the broader region [49]. In addition, EE/ESD content in the subject ensures that learners explore possible responses to issues and challenges arising from human and environmental interactions in a local and national context.

7.2 Analysis of the changes brought by the new CAPS curriculum which affect EE implementation

The new curriculum brought the following changes from the old curriculum. These changes have not only affected the structure but also influenced the coverage, teaching and examination of the environmental impact topics in the curriculum (Table 5).

SubjectEE/ESD ContentContent/Concept
  • Environmental impact on development and energy management.

  • Human- environmental interaction and social impact

Environmental quality and quality of life
  • Any topic in Geography can be explored by applying a conceptual framework that embraces Geography’s four Big ideas which are, Human and environment interaction (Water in the world, The World’s Oceans, Water management in South Africa, Floods, drainage systems in South Africa, fluvial processes. Catchment and river management)

Table 5.

Environmental impact topics and content found in the grade 12 subjects.

In Geography, the main aim is to make and justify informed decisions and judgements about social and environmental issues. Based on this aim in the subject, EE/ESD topics include environmental impact, human-environmental interaction and environmental quality. The content is based on human and environmental interaction on water in the world, world’s oceans, water management in South Africa, floods, drainage systems in South Africa, fluvial processes, catchment and river management.

7.3 The effects of the shift of the curriculum from old NCS (grade 10: 12) to new CAPS curriculum

This section discusses the effects of the changes in the coverage of EE/ESD topics from the old NCS (Grade 10–12) to CAPS. It answers the research sub-questions, which is, “To what extent are environmental education/education for sustainable development topics being covered in teaching and learning documents used by teachers and learners in Geography Grade 12 curriculum?” This section discusses general and specific results based on the breadth and depth of EE/ESD coverage in both curricula as seen in Tables 4 and 5.

When comparing the content breadth structural differences between old NCS (Grade 10–12) and CAPS were evident. As seen in Tables 4 and 5 CAPS documents were easier to analyse, where the work schedule showed the topics to be covered and it was easier for the EE/ESD topics to be identified compared to the old NCS (Grade 10–12). However, in Geography there was a notable decrease in the depth of EE/ESD content coverage in CAPS when compared to old NCS (Grade 10–12).

In sum, the overall structural presentation of the content in CAPS was clearer than in old NCS (Grade 10–12). The researcher also realised that in some of the CAPS documents, the description and clearer specification of content to be covered in a particular time make it easier for teachers to follow a specific time frame for the topics to be taught and teachers are exposed to clear EE/ESD topics to be covered during the year. From the analyses, it was revealed that CAPS is pitched at the micro-level, where the teacher is the implementer of a developed programme. This is in contrast with the old NCS (Grade 10–12) where the policy was developed at the macro-level and focused on meeting the LOs and ASs. This implies that CAPS provides more structural Geography content support to both novice and experienced teachers because of its prescriptive nature. From analysis of the two curricula, it appears that CAPS was the ideal policy as it was easier for stakeholders to implement compared to the old NCS (Grade 10–12) in the teaching and learning of EE/ESD topics in Geography.

A second example of the decrease in Geography, wherein old NCS the coverage of EE/ESD topics was in LO 2: The development of knowledge and understanding, and LO 3: The application of knowledge and skills. Firstly, the content involved learners being expected to demonstrate a fundamental knowledge of physical and human processes and the patterns which result from them, as well as the interactions between humans and the environment at local and national scales. Secondly, Geography seeks to understand human-environment interactions. Likewise, the environment and the availability of resources in regions and places shape human activities and lifestyles, and ultimately their well-being. In addition, it is concerned about how people depend on, adapt to, and modify environments, and considers the consequences of human actions. In summary, the Geography content involves learning about climate and weather, fluvial processes and landforms, people and places and needs as seen in Table 5. On the other hand, in CAPS only topics such as environmental impacts of development and energy management, human-environmental interactions and social impact and environmental quality and quality of life were covered.

Geography had the following EE/ESD topics which were found in the policy documents: impact of climate change, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, drought, river pollution, air pollution, health hazards caused by mines, soil destruction, improper solid waste disposal, poverty, the negative impact of human activities on wildlife, food security, effects of berg winds on veld fires, negative effects of overpopulation in urban areas, water pollution in the Vaal River, environmental impact of cyclones, high levels of pollution in the outskirts of towns, soil erosion and overstocking. The difference in the coverage between old NCS and CAPS in this subject was that old NCS covered Learning Outcome 1 and 2 that taught learners about the development of knowledge and understanding and Learning Outcome 3 which facilitated the application of knowledge and skills. However, CAPS covered these specific topics, understanding climate change and changing weather patterns, sustainable development principles and practices. Furthermore, CAPS covered urbanisation and land use management and sustainability, management of natural resources.

It is evident that the shift of the curriculum from old NCS to CAPS enhanced the coverage of EE/ESD topics in the new CAPS curricula for Geography as shown in Table 6.

Year 2006 to 2015
Marks allocated out of 30034243238382452304023
Percentage coverage11%8%11%13%13%8%17%10%13%8%
Average (Old NCS vs. CAPS)10.7%12%

Table 6.

Showing coverage of EE/ESD topics in geography examinations.

In Geography, past examination papers from 2006 to 2015 revealed that the following EE/ESD topics were covered: these are the impacts of climate change, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, drought, river pollution and air pollution, health hazards caused by mines, poverty, negative impacts of human activities on wildlife and food security. The following topics were also identified: effects of berg winds on veld fires, negative effects of overpopulation in urban areas, water pollution in the Vaal River, environmental impact of cyclones and high levels of pollution in the outskirts of towns, soil erosion and overstocking. The information on the past examination was sourced from the DBE website in 2022. In Geography, the coverage of environmental impact topics in the past examination papers shows an average of 11% over the ten years under research.

7.4 Coverage in the policies and examinations of EE/ESD between RNCS and CAPS

In Geography was observed that the Old NCS and CAPS policies were not aligned, and the reason was that in the old NCS only themes and LOs were written while in the CAPS curriculum only the actual content to be taught was stipulated. The vertical alignment of policy and examination content in old NCS and CAPS revealed that the policies and examination content were aligned. Further analysis revealed that both policies had similar EE/ESD topics such as tropical storms causing floods, climate change, soil degradation, water and air pollution, environmental dangers of berg winds’ negative impact on human beings, etc. In addition, old NCS also covered topics such as deforestation, negative impact on urban growth, etc. The shift in the curriculum increased the coverage of EE/ESD topics in the examinations. This contrasts with the results on policies that revealed that the content in old NCS was more than that of CAPS. This is shown in Table 6, which reveals extensive coverage of EE/ESD topics in 2008. It cannot go without notice that in 2012, under CAPS, the breadth of environmental impact topics was the highest when compared to the other years, with 2011 and 2015 recording the lowest percentages in summative assessment. It was also noted that Geography, when compared with the other eleven subjects analysed, had the widest coverage of environmental impact topics in both the old NCS and CAPS curricula. When comparing the topics, the old NCS had the widest range of environmental impact topics compared to CAPS. Overall, the shift in the curriculum in Geography decreased content coverage in CAPS policy while it increased environmental impact coverage in the actual Grade 12 examinations when compared to the old NCS. The shift from old NCS to CAPS, therefore, improved Geography EE/ESD topics coverage in practice.


8. Conclusion

In Geography, document analysis revealed that examination of EE/ESD topics in CAPS was greater than the coverage in the previous old NCS. In Geography, the analysis revealed a difference of about 4.6%, which showed a slight misalignment between the policy requirements and the examination of environmental impact topics. In sum, the researcher is of the view that the shift in the curriculum positively influenced the coverage, teaching and examination of environmental impact topics in South Africa’s FET phase. This implies that in the CAPS curriculum, specifically where there was evidence of EE/ESD topics coverage in the subject policies, teachers were able to include the content in their teaching. The researcher believes that learners are benefiting more in CAPS than in old NCS in terms of learning about sustaining the biophysical, economic, political and social environment. This resulted in the emergence of a structural and cultural morphogenesis model in the teaching of environmental content in the FET phase. In my view, the increased coverage of ESD topics in the CAPS is one of the positive impacts of curriculum change in South Africa. In this subject, teachers will now be exposed to more content on environmental education. The researcher believes that this is a good indication that although some subjects did not infuse environmental impact topics coverage into the curriculum, other subjects do adhere to the policies. Significantly, the White Paper on Environmental Management Policy published in 1997, states that establishing good governance in South Africa can only be guaranteed if it is based on a sound socio-economic framework that is environmentally sustainable [8]. Payne [50] stated that;

Limited progress in the ability of social theory, environmental philosophy, and geography to inform curriculum developers of how to bridge the dualisms of agency–structure, identity–spatiality, and local–global that, effectively, denied the possibility of plausible empirical insights into the nature of human-environment relations and, therefore, satisfactory explanations of socioecological life needed for the planning of meaningful curricula experiences.

Again, [50] statement signifies the importance and role of curriculum developers to ensure that educational policies infusing EE/ESD into the curriculum are interpreted and applied correctly (put into practice) to enhance progress in the ability of social theory, environmental philosophy, and all subject to inform relevant stakeholders on how to bridge the agency-structure relationship that exists.

The shift from the old NCS to the CAPS curriculum was beneficial to teachers as they were able to engage in reflecting on and assessing their own efforts to promote inquiry, reasoning, problem-solving and communication in the classroom. An increase in the coverage of environmental impact topics was found in Geography. The researcher concurs with the findings of this study that integration of EE/ESD topics in the curriculum documents as well as in practice should be encouraged and it is the responsibility of all structures involved in the education sector. In support of this finding, [51] pointed out that the inclusion of EE/ESD in the curriculum allows for the construction of trans-cultural spaces in which scholars from different localities collaborate in reframing and disseminating their own knowledge traditions. He further states that much needs to be done in terms of research as EE/ESD continues to evolve and transform.


9. Recommendations

Education policy developers and subject advisors should evaluate the documents used by teachers for teaching purposes to ensure that the policy requirements are embedded in all the subject documents. The implication of this misalignment is that teachers tend to focus on the topics that have frequently appeared in the examinations. This could lead to EE/ESD topics not being taught to learners as teachers concentrate on topics that have a higher potential of being examined at the end of the year.


List of abbreviations

FETFurther Education and Training
CAPSCurriculum and Assessment Statement
EE/ESDEnvironmental Education/Education for Sustainable Development
UNDESDNations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development
RSTRealist Social Theory
RNCSRevised National Curriculum Statement
NCSNational Curriculum Statement
DEADepartment of Environmental Affairs


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Written By

Sikhulile Bonginkosi Msezane

Submitted: 19 March 2022 Reviewed: 19 April 2022 Published: 27 July 2022