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La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993

Case Study in Rural Central America

The question addressed by this study was whether the things taken for granted in U.S. elementary schools could also be assumed in rural schools in Central America where translated environmental education materials might be exported. In other words, the study sought to assess the transferability of North American environmental education programs to rural school systems in Central America. The site chosen for the study was the La Unión, Olancho, region of rural Honduras where a new environmental education initiative funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was about to begin. USAID officials and Honduran project managers wanted to know at the outset what types of environmental education materials would be best in area schools, and what types of in-service teacher training might be important to offer.

The choice of the study site was important. Socioeconomically, the La Unión region of Honduras is representative of other rural areas in that country, and probably of rural Central America in general, with the possible exception of Costa Rica. Since a sizeable portion of Central America is rural (Honduras, in fact, is 60 percent rural), environmental education development in rural areas promises to reach a significant portion of the region’s population. In addition, many of Central America’s most  pressing environmental problems are caused or exacerbated by rapidly growing rural populations (Leonard 1986). As these people mature, they develop lifelong perceptions, values, and behaviors toward nature and natural resources. Therefore, rural school and community environmental education programs may represent an important strategy for mitigating regional environmental problems and improving Central America’s environmental future.

The data reported here come from a study by Ham and Castillo (1990, 29-31) in which rural elementary school teachers (grades 1 to 6) were interviewed in order to determine approaches for developing environmental education materials and teacher training programs for those schools. The overall purpose was to learn about the schools, teachers, and students in the La Unión region so that usable and effective materials and related in-service training programs could be designed in concert with local realities and coordinated with ongoing USAID forestry development activities. Selected results are presented in this discussion. Readers wanting more detailed information are referred to Ham and Castillo (1988, 9-43) and Castillo (1989, 44-81).


Interviews were conducted with a random sample of 49 of the 69 elementary teachers in the La Unión region, comprising a 71 percent sample and allowing a confidence interval beyond 95 percent. The 49 teachers interviewed each taught one or more grades (1 to 6) and came from 32 different schools in the region.

With assistance from the Honduran Ministry of Public Education and the Honduran Ecological Association, interviews were arranged  in advance. Unless circumstances dictated otherwise, interviews were conducted on the school site itself, allowing observation of the school’s physical setting, classroom facilities, and available teaching resources. To structure the interview and minimize bias, a standard interview form was used. Pretesting was conducted at the University of Idaho using Central American students as subjects, and again in Honduras before data collection began.

The interviews were conducted by a native Honduran who at the time was a graduate student at the University of Idaho. Interviews lasted an average of 45 minutes depending on the amount of discussion on open-ended questions. The longest was about 1.5 hours. There were no refusals.

Selected Results and Discussion

The interviews and observations revealed wide differences between U.S. and rural Honduran elementary schools. A striking difference was found in the educational level of teachers. Whereas U.S. teachers usually have at least a bachelor’s degree and minor, none of the Honduran teachers had more than a high school education, and nearly half had completed nine or fewer years of formal schooling (Table 2). Even considering that most of them have completed additional teacher training courses (a requirement for teacher certification in Honduras), their basic reading, comprehension, and computational skills might not be sufficient for environmental education materials geared to a college-educated teacher. Combined with the culture-dependent descriptions, examples and analogies typically contained in environmental education guides, this difference in education could effectively render many U.S.-based materials difficult to comprehend if not culturally distant, regardless of how well they might be translated.


A second major difference was found in enrollment patterns. In rural Honduras, many children do not attend school at all, and those that do often drop out before the sixth grade in order to assist their families in household and sustenance activities. Dramatic declines in enrollment between the first and third grades, and again between the third and sixth grades, were discovered in the 32 schools we contacted (see Table 3). Of the number of children enrolled in the first grade, only 25 percent of that class were still attending school by the fourth grade. By grade 6, less than 16 percent of the original enrollment remained—a decline of more than 84 percent. Modular and sequential environmental education programs based on grade levels stand to miss 75 percent of the children by grade 4 and 84 percent by grade 6 in rural Honduras. In addition, because many such programs begin with an affective/conceptual orientation and gradually build to more applied, problem-solving orientations in later grades, most children in rural Honduras would never advance to the application stage.


Medina makes a point that U.S. environmental educators need to consider—that children in underdeveloped areas such as La Unión, and their families, must be taught how to make their living from natural resources without destroying the biological systems that give rise to them. Beyond teaching romanticism and respect for nature, Medina and others have stressed that environmental education in rural Central America must demonstrate economically viable alternatives to destructive land uses while still preserving the traditions and dignity of local people. Environmental education in the United States has not adopted such an emphasis because environmental problems there are usually different from those faced by countries such as Honduras.


A third difference between United States and rural Honduran schools was related to class composition. Whereas in the U.S. it is usually assumed there will be students of only one grade level in each class, most of the 49 teachers we interviewed taught two or more grade levels at a time in the same classroom (see Table 4). Carrying out class discussions under such circumstances could be impossible as the conversation of one group of children might disturb the work of other children in the classroom. For a teacher who instructs only two grades at a time, carefully controlled discussions might be possible under some circumstances. However, over half of the teachers taught three or more grades, and in two very remote schools, the same teacher simultaneously taught all six grades in the same classroom. According to these teachers, everyday teaching is logistically complex and discussions are usually impossible. Yet many U.S. environmental education activities stress discussion and group information processing. In rural Honduran classrooms, these activities would be difficult, if not disruptive, to carry out.

A fourth difference between U.S. and rural Honduran schools was the services, resources, and facilities available in the schools.  U.S. environmental education activities frequently require “commonly available” materials such as string, paper, glue, scissors, and rubber bands. Even though such materials may be considered common and inexpensive by U.S. teachers, rural Honduran teachers can rarely count on their availability. Likewise, none of the schools had telephones, plumbing, electricity, or photocopiers. Clearly, the many U.S. environmental education activities that presume access to these materials and services would be impractical in rural Honduras.