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Sustainability: time for education to really step up

February 8, 2022

Sustainability is when current generations can meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Simple, right? The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals have nice clear delineations, and lovely icons that set clear targets with a nice aesthetic. So all we have to do, is walk a bit more, and eat less plastic, or something like that. Oh, and sell one of our less vital organs to afford that electric car. Job done

You might have detected a bit of sarcasm there, and you'd be right. Sustainability is complex, and not just because we are talking about meeting goals that deal with interconnected systems of nature and society, economics and politics, but also because on a personal level, this requires a fundamental shift in the way we think and behave. We often hear people talking about sustainability as something that "saves" the planet, but the planet will adapt to the harm we have done it. Humans, on the other hand, are in real trouble if we do not start to deal with this at a much deeper level. When we look to education to help us meet the challenge, what do we find?

Education for Sustainable Development, or ESD, is a field which is now firmly on the radar for every forward-thinking school, college and university, but what comes to mind when you hear this? Just take a second to reflect.

What often comes to mind in many institutions, we have, is just adding bits on sustainability to certain subjects that learning designers might feel are most relevant. An example might be for someone studying fashion at college to get a few workshops or even an elective on the damage fast fashion does to our environment, and the workers who feed that demand. A high school might do a project on the water cycle or greenhouse gases, and a primary school might lead a campaign to ban plastic straws from local cafés.

The thing is, that though these well-intentioned actions might provide learners with new knowledge, which leads to a raised awareness of important issues, they are unlikely to support the fundamental behavioural change we need to see in the mainstream of our communities and societies. Sustainability in education is not a workshop, an elective or a project, but is about transforming the way we think about our place in this world, how we impact it and are impacted by it.

Ajita Nayar, former head of education at the World Wildlife Fund, expressed the objective of ESD as supporting every single learner to “acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to shape a sustainable future.

An MDPI report in 2021 concludes that this is the very reason why sustainability should not just be “taught” directly in one class or workshop, but be embedded as part of a holistic approach. The pluralism of sustainability means it must be encountered by learners in a variety of settings, forms and approaches in order to internalize its importance and scale. In short, sustainability is not an add-on, but must be mainstreamed throughout every curriculum, and embraced by institutions as the core of their strategy.

Emotional connection to empowered action

Picture this. A learner in primary school is exposed to nature based learning, where, in nature or in a biophilic learning environment, they make their way through these formative years in touch with nature and the learning it offers. They begin their education from an ecocentric perspective, where the living world, and not humans, lies at the centre of everything. The learner understands natural cycles, and the learning opportunities that they present, from maths to art, contextualised by the forests, the oceans and the rain.

Tree huggers? Absolutely. The more we are divorced from our natural environment, the more we are distanced from its central importance. We grow up thinking that we can consume and consume as the population grows and grows, and that science will eventually save us from ourselves. These discourses of delay help us rationalise inaction and pushing for systemic change. Someone else will do something, surely?

The learner who grows to feel connected with the living world is more likely to advocate for it. The example we gave earlier of a campaign to ban plastic straws from local businesses, was actually carried out by Ullapool Primary School in the Highlands of Scotland. Far from a one off, a quick look at their social media activity will tell you that this school holistically embraces environmental issues. What is more, the young learners have already seen the power they can wield through activism. From beach cleans to campaigns to protect local red squirrels, these learners reflect on the values of sustainability as a core element of learning, and then they take it to the streets. That's what we need.

Transformative pedagogies for transformative societies

Knowledge alone does not change behaviour and attitudes and does not create a sense of agency and empowerment in which a learner feels they can achieve change. For this, we must look to so-called “non-traditional” pedagogies, which are largely learner-centred or learner-directed.

There is a challenge for institutions still dependent on teacher-centred deficit models of learning. Filling heads with knowledge is not supporting learners to engage with sustainability, think critically, take action, as well as to lead, inspire or support positive change. Much of this is done in the knowledge that the challenges brought about by climate change and biodiversity loss will not be linear or easy to predict, and so learners need to feel empowered to act, and be positive about the impact they can make. 

Transformative pedagogies are approaches which help the learner feel, connect and engage. Where the learning is project-based, challenge-based, problem-based, experiential or nature-based (to name but a few), there is scope to develop agency and metacognitive awareness as the learning shifts perceptions and reframes the world around us.

The sticky bit is that so many institutions are not yet supporting their teachers and tutors to really see how these approaches can work in the learning environment, and it doesn't happen overnight. Training support is an absolute must.

Embedding sustainability in curricula

Sustainability can be added as a core component in the curriculum, but it is best reinforced wherever possible throughout the learning process. For example, a construction course at college may have a module in “sustainable construction”, but throughout all of the other  modules, sustainability can be reinforced through:

  • the examples we use in the classroom
  • the projects learners are asked to do
  • connections with relevant professional organisations in the community
  • The problems learners are asked to solve, and the self-directed learning they must conduct at home. 

As examples of this, learners studying animal care at Wiltshire College must conduct an environmental audit of the animal care centre, and students of Fine Art at Bedford College produced pieces around sustainability and littering to be displayed by local businesses.

Embedding sustainability in the curriculum needs a level of institutional commitment and is best tied to an overall sustainability and decarbonisation strategy, so that it not only threads its way through the learning but through the values, mission and actions of the institution. Organisations such as the Carbon Trust in the UK are working with institutions on fundamentals of awareness raising, and those such as The Skills Network are leading the way by working in more depth with the process of main streaming sustainability in teaching and learning. This can take time, but isn't it worth it in the end?

The why

We could talk about net-zero goals, targets, initiatives and all the rest. We could tell you about the increasing clamour for education to step up and get substantively involved in all this, and not just greenwashing while their pension provider invests in Arctic drilling and fracking. We could tell you about how all jobs are green jobs with eco-literacy the new functional skills of our time, and there is a massive need for new generations who understand this stuff and can support company's sustainability targets.

In the end, however, this is kind of missing the point. The external motivation in taking action for reward is not going to see us out of this mess. The true shift is when people do the right thing when nobody is looking, simply because it is the right thing. When people understand the difference between a carbon footprint and a climate shadow. When they know the power of their purchase and the strength that comes from true leadership in their communities. With that level of change, we might just have a chance.

So where are we on that in the field of education? Lots of good things are happening, but overall, it's best not to dwell on how much is simply not happening at all. Instead, how about we think on where we could be, and start to get this right.

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