When you attended elementary school, did you ever learn about nature conservation? Did you participate in any group activities that helped form a basic understanding of the tragedy of the commons? If your answer was ‘no’ to both of these questions, then, like most of us millennials, you weren’t taught fundamental lessons in sustainability. What are “sustainability lessons”? This type of lesson, class, or even all-encompassing school theme should teach children about the fragility of the physical environment, make them more aware of natural resources, and above all, should ensure they understand that societies need to pursue development that meets both the needs of the present and future generations.
Is this too much information to unload on a 5th grader? If teachers formed lessons straight from ecologist Garrett Hardin’s famous article “The Tragedy of the Commons,” then you’d be correct to think this is absurd for an elementary or middle school student. However, if you take Hardin’s basic ideas—say, sharing a common pool of resources between individuals—it can be dumbed-down to fun exercises that get the point across to young students. This type of lesson is already being implemented in various schools across the country—students are divided into groups, given bowls of M&M’s which represent fish in the ocean, and are told to fish with their technology (straws). When the lesson is finished, the teacher can discuss sustainable fishing methods, what happens when resources are depleted, and emigration or conflict, all of which interrelate to modern day global realities. Obviously, depending on the age group, these teachings will range from very simple to more complex ideas.
Education is “humanity’s best hope and most effective means in the quest to achieve sustainable development”–UNESCO
The importance of learning sustainability early
Whether you realize it or not, most of your current actions and behaviors stem from how your family raised you, your environment growing up, and how you were educated. In America, the majority of our K-12 education does not
teach stress the importance of environmental conservation, climate change, alternative energy, and global sustainable development as a whole. This is why so many individuals in this country look confused when you mention the word “sustainable.” It’s not their fault. If you grow up learning, thinking, and practicing what you were taught from K-12—and all of this didn’t include lessons in sustainability—then it’s going to be very difficult for your brain to suddenly turn on a tree-hugging, save-the-planet switch today.
A position statement from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) states, “children’s experiences during early childhood not only influence their later functioning in school but can have effects throughout life.” Research the statement cites also indicates that children’s early environments and experiences have lasting effects on brain development and cognition.
A passage from Vital Didonet’s article titled “Early childhood education for a sustainable society” sums it all up: “The structure of values and attitude built in the early years are the strong and permanent roots for one’s entire life. They will always be used as References for main decisions that challenge men and women. Those first values determine ethical and moral behaviours throughout life…. Therefore, if we desire that adults, in the next generation, respect nature and care for the planet, it is important to include now, in the early childhood education curriculum or programme, the study of nature, and the interdependence between human beings and the environment.”
What does education for sustainability look like?
A 1997 UNESCO report observed that school curricula “have tended in the past to reproduce an unsustainable culture with intensified environment and development problems rather than empower citizens to think and work towards their solution.” So, what should new curricula teach? How can young students learn about sustainable development?
Eveline Pressoir discusses three interconnected “pillars” of sustainable development that should be taught alongside each other:
- “Environment and ecology: awareness of natural resources and fragility of physical environment.
- Economy: sensitivity to the limits and potential of economic growth and its impacts on society and environment.
- Society and culture: understanding of social institutions and their role in change and development.
Pressoir believes that this new way of teaching will prepare students with the problem solving skills needed in a world “with a decline of resources, declining equilibrium between nature and human development and increasing disparities.”
This all sounds great on paper…but how does one actually make this graspable for a distracted 12 year-old? Some states are already ahead of the curve with teaching sustainability (e.g., Washington, Vermont). The teachers in these states are incorporating the topic in a variety of ways: as a context within which to teach core subjects, as its own subject, and even as a school-wide theme (Gladstone School District in Oregon).
In 2009, the state of Washington adopted K-12 Integrated Environmental and Sustainability Education Learning Standards. A “Stories from the Field” document was put together to showcase some examples of these teachers’ sustainability lessons. One such example is a kindergarten project that had children plant birdhouse gourd seeds, watch the growth of the gourds, and finally harvest and drill holes through the gourds in order to create natural birdhouses they could hang throughout the school’s property. A great example for grades 5-6 took place at Horace Mann Elementary. The students documented the effects of idling cars and other traffic problems in the school parking lot. After monitoring the traffic and how much time cars spent idling in the drop off zone, the students prepared a presentation for the school’s staff, which led to the recommendation of a no idle zone, promoted walking clubs and bike days, and reduced the number of cars coming through the lot by 20%. These examples show how teachers can implement creative hands-on learning projects. However, what do teachers think about sustainability in the classroom? Are kids paying attention?
Wendy Church and Laura Skelton’s “Sustainability Education in K-12 Classrooms”gives us some insight and stats for how educators feel about this coursework: “Year after year, teachers overwhelmingly talk about improved student engagement when teaching real-world sustainability issues.” Of 1,700 K-12 teachers surveyed nationwide, over 85% say that the use of global sustainability in the classroom engages their students “more or as well as anything else” used.
So, the results are extremely positive with educators thus far, children in a handful of schools across the country are learning sustainable practices and are developing hands-on critical thinking skills, and a few entire school districts even revolve around a sustainability theme. What’s next? When does the entire nation catch on?
The Center for Green Schools at USGBC teamed up with publishing company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and created a plan for “Educating for Sustainability.” The executive summary for the plan states that it “empowers students to make decisions that balance the need to preserve healthy ecosystems with the need to promote vibrant economies and equitable social systems for all generations to come.” After bringing academic, corporate, and nonprofit stakeholders together, their National Action Plan was released. It recommends that “all students graduate educated for a sustainable future through the integration of the environment, economy, and equity, with the ability to apply systems thinking to problem solving and decision making by 2040.”
It seems crucially important that Educating for Sustainability, or a plan that’s very similar, is adopted by our school systems. If this nation wants to follow an Earth-friendly culture that will sustain generations to come, we have to teach our youngest how to think critically and properly tackle problems that we’ve so carelessly created.