Education for Sustainability: a basic primer

Earlier this month, I was privileged to be sent by my school district to the Summer Institute on Education for Sustainability, held at Shelburne Farms in Burlington, VT. It was a beautiful site, overlooking Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains: lake champlain shelburne VT

When I taught garden and nutrition education with a farm-to-school organization in Chicago, I had heard of Shelburne Farms and the awesome farm-to-school programs they had helped implement at schools throughout Vermont. But actually attending a teacher training institute out there seemed way out of my league! I mean, the description of the course sounded like some sort of hippie-teacher-mecca:

Spend four rich days with colleagues around the country at an informative and restorative institute created to provide an opportunity for participants to deepen their understanding of Education for Sustainability. Educators have the opportunity to develop connections between curriculum and community, work and dialogue together, and reflect in an inspiring setting that models sustainability and systems-thinking.

Sounds amazing, and way out of my league! When would I have the time, and the money, to go to something like that? But fast forward several years, and I found myself an eager participant of the week-long course, due to a generous grant from my district. I learned so much, and got to talk with some amazing teachers about Education for Sustainability. My biggest question going in was "What is Education for Sustainability? And how will I explain it to other teachers and administrators at my school when I return?"

After four days of conversations, lectures, and research at the Institute, I am no expert on this complicated topic. But I do feel more confident in my ability to both explain what it means to me, and implement it in my classroom. So here on this blog I'll attempt to share some of my discoveries!

Education for Sustainability

First off, a definition of "sustainability." There are a million different ways to define this word, depending on the context and who is doing the defining. But here is a generic explanation.

sustainability: the ability to meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

Some easy-to-understand examples of sustainable activities could be...

  • replanting three trees for every tree you chop down
  • using solar energy (since there is a limitless supply of sun)
  • building rain gardens to help filter water before it reaches the groundwater supply (rather than using lots of resources to send it through a water treatment plant)

Basically, you can do those things forever (or close to it) without damaging the environment or human communities. The problem is that most of the systems in our society are not set up to be sustainable. Think about all the oil we use for energy. We are pulling it out of the ground and it won't get replenished for millions of years. So future generations won't be able to use it. And meanwhile, it's polluting the air and contributing to climate change in a big way. Making it worse for future generations. It is decidedly not sustainable.

So that's one example to help understand sustainability. Probably a lot of what we already teach and promote in classrooms can be considered sustainable -- recycling, turning off the lights, planting a garden. These are all sustainable activities, and it's very important to teach them. But Education for Sustainability is bigger than these little actions. These little actions only look at what an individual can do to make a tiny dent in a system that is already set up to fail. No matter how many classrooms recycle their paper products, businesses and factories are still using way more paper than our forests can produce, so even if all the elementary school classrooms learn to recycle, it won't make a difference in the number of trees we need to cut down.

But before I get all doomsday about the environment -- which happens in these conversations way too quickly, discouraging kids and teachers from feeling empowered to do anything about it -- I want to point out that education for sustainability isn't just teaching recycling. It isn't just teaching families to drive less. It's teaching students to look at the world in a different way. It's teaching students that it is everyone's responsibility to improve the quality of life for all. And it's helping them understand how they can do it, in a developmentally appropriate way.

Since most of the systems in our society are decidedly not sustainable, it's our job as teachers to help students understand (a) what the systems are; (b) how they are not sustainable; and (c) what we can do to make them sustainable.

Now since this is a lot to think about already, I am going to stop here for the day and just share one more thing. We were asked to come up with our own definition of sustainability education. While this isn't perfect, it's the best I could develop after a week at the Institute. I know it will evolve over time, but here it is for now:

sustainability education: building on children's natural sense of wonder to integrate scientific, social and economic thinking and knowledge, with the goal of creating students who are active citizens of their classroom, community and world

That's a lot of words, and I will revisit this definition next time, to help break it down a bit! For now, I leave you with this quote which perfectly sums up the importance of Education for Sustainability.

inherit the earth quote