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How can we teach sustainability in schools?

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How can we teach sustainability in schools?

For once, governments, educators, and activists are all in agreement: we need to teach sustainability in schools - and we need to teach it from nursery level onwards. 

So it comes as a bit of a shock that sustainability isn’t on the National Curriculum for England.

Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland all stipulate some sustainability education, and many English schools teach it through their own initiative - but there’s no real, joined-up imperative to teach sustainability throughout the whole UK. All curriculums pay attention to the environment and ecology - but sustainability takes a back seat.

That’s a shame, because if the next generation is going to cope with a world in ecological crisis, they’re going to need more than just facts about the environment. They’re going to need a sustainable mindset. 

How can we teach that? Well, here’s what the experts recommend:

1 - The approach should take in the whole school - and wider

Sustainability involves everyone working together in small ways to achieve something huge. It’s both an individual and a team effort. 

This means that everyone needs to be involved. Teachers and school leaders in particular should lead by example. Whether it’s picking up litter, cycle-to-work initiatives, installing solar panels, or bringing a lunch in sustainable packaging, sustainability has to be modeled as well as taught.

Sometimes, that might mean altering the values of the school as a whole. To be truly sustainable, schools shouldn’t just perform sustainability - they should fully engage with it. That means helping out other teachers and staff members if they’re struggling with any of this.

For example, rather than penalising staff members who can’t, say, walk to work, figure out ways to help them out. Carpooling, ebike schemes, a bus pass - all of these could make a big difference.

It even goes beyond the school gates. If you can get parents and guardians involved in your sustainability initiatives, the lesson will go even further. Again, if living sustainably isn’t easy for a child’s family, neither make them feel bad about it  nor give up. Find practical ways and resources to help out. Even finding a small way in which a child can live more sustainably (encouraging them to help sort the recycling, for example) will make them feel involved.

Sustainability isn’t about performing or paying lip service to sustainable values. It’s about working together as a team to achieve a real, sustainable future. That means helping everyone to be more sustainable in whatever way works for them.

2 - Remember that sustainability isn’t all about the environment

Sustainability experts agree that sustainability isn’t a set of behaviours - it’s a state of mind. Living harmoniously with a healing planet might be the end goal, but learning ‘green skills’ isn’t the only way to get there.

In order to learn how to truly share the planet in a sustainable way, we need to teach values as well as skills. Even values that don’t obviously connect with environmental goals.

For example, UN Sustainable Development Target 4.7  for education is as follows: 

“By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development” 

Key among the ‘knowledge and skills’ the UN highlights in this target are “sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and nonviolence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”

Teaching compassion, empathy, and open-mindedness in this way is important, because these values help us to work together on a planet-wide scale. Climate change knows no boundaries, so we need to raise a generation that can also see beyond boundaries. It will take everyone working together, no matter who they are or where they’re from, to build a sustainable future.

Greed, selfishness, and a lack of compassion have all contributed to the ecological crisis we’re facing today. Teaching values like empathy, selflessness, and compassion could help the next generation to repair some of the damage.

3 - Build solutions into lessons 

Millennials and Generation Z grew up with a lot of doom and gloom about the environment. They were taught everything there was to know about the impending crisis - but weren’t taught a lot about how to solve it. 

That left two entire generations with a lot of hopelessness and anxiety about the environment. Many younger adults report feeling helpless and ineffective when they think about the ecological crisis. 

It’s a big issue, for sure, and nobody can be blamed for feeling anxious about it. However, the upcoming generations could avoid some of the stress by learning about proactive ways they can help turn things around.

For example, when teaching about industrial pollution, build in a lesson about how students can find ethical, non-polluting companies to buy from. When teaching about car damage, also teach about how campaigning for cycle paths and footways can reduce traffic.

Even simple things, like teaching kids not to take more than they need, can have a big impact when framed in the wider environmental context. 

4 - Encourage a positive relationship with the environment

Learning about and within the natural world helps children to forge a personal connection with the environment. At heart, sustainable values are about caring, and it’s hard to truly care about something you don’t know.

Helping children get to know the natural world around them can forge a lasting connection. That connection will help them feel truly invested in protecting the planet. 

Show them how beautiful nature is, how intricate its ecosystems are. Perhaps set up a nature area in the school grounds, build bug hotels in class, and/or take field trips to national parks. 

Get creative with it! Even teaching kids how to take amazing landscape or nature photographs on their phones could have an impact.

Build sustainability into your curriculum with Kinteract

Kinteract is perfect for building sustainability into the heart of your curriculum. Set sustainability goals, and Kinteract will help steer you towards them. Plan activities, monitor progress, and get everyone involved on a truly wide scale with Kinteract’s intuitive technology

To learn more about how Kinteract can help your school follow a plan and achieve even the most ambitious goals, check out our platform features.