A holistic approach to sustainability

Every week I speak to and meet incredible teachers, they are the doers in the world of sustainability education. They believe passionately that young people have a right to learn about the environmental issues that face them now and in the future. They believe that the education system should be teaching about climate change, biodiversity loss and natural resource depletion.

They believe that children should be engaged in learning about local environmental change, littering, air pollution and the impacts of the various construction and infrastructure projects that reshape the places they live. But, they also know that knowledge of the issues is only one third of what sustainability education is and needs to be.

As educators they also play a critical role in nurturing both the skills and the values that will underpin a thriving society and environmentally sustainable world. Most importantly though, these teachers do it; they do sustainability education, they find a way. Whatever circumstances and conditions they find themselves in, they can make it happen. They are open minded, optimistic, creative, collaborative and brilliant at making their work fit within the framework passed down to them from the Secretary of State.

Curriculum Limitations
I concede that the new National Curriculum is limited as a stick that ensures children receive environmental education. In schools that do not have a desire to educate for sustainability, children are a lot less likely to develop environmental knowledge, skills and values. This marginalisation is a huge frustration for environmentalists. But, if the desire does exist, even in one passionate teacher, imagination is really the only barrier to sustainability education. It can still thrive.
Schools are building it into the formal curriculum, the informal curriculum and the fabric of the school. This summer seven Eco-Schools roadshow events across England will show you how this is being done. I would like to invite you to join with other teachers and educators who are passionate or curious about environmental education and the benefits it brings for schools, society, children and the natural world.
Our roadshow events will look closely at the National Curriculum and the opportunities it presents for environmental educators. These opportunities exist under three main categories.

Firstly, the National Curriculum requires some sustainability topics to be studied, fewer than before, but some remain.

Secondly, it is possible to use environmental issues or factors as case studies through which other topics or skills are taught. Finally, a recognition that education for sustainability does not necessarily have to mention the environment.

The National Curriculum
If we look first at how sustainability is covered in the National Curriculum we see that sustainability education is happening, but not as a coherent programme of learning on its own.

There is a scattering of topics across the key stages and classroom subjects that give children the opportunity to learn about social and environmental phenomena. In science lessons, at key stages one and two children are taught the following topics: plants; animals, including humans; everyday materials; living things and their habitats; states of matter; and electricity. Under the ‘plants’ topic, for example, the statutory requirements at key stage one are that:
Pupils should be taught to identify and name a variety of common wild and garden plants, including deciduous and evergreen trees, and should also be taught to identify and describe the basic structure of a variety of common flowering plants, including trees.

Cooking and nutrition is covered in design and technology at key stages one and two. At key stage one, children learn ‘place knowledge’ and ‘geographical skills and fieldwork’. At key stage two this is expanded to include ‘human and physical geography’. In art at key stage one, children are taught to use a range of materials creatively. Pupils are therefore learning about the environment and the living and non-living things that combine together to shape it.
At key stages three and four, topic areas become a little bit tighter. In the sciences at key stage three sustainability education occurs through the following topics: nutrition and digestion; health; relationships in an ecosystem; Earth and atmosphere; energy and matter. The statutory requirements under ‘Earth and atmosphere’ include mentions of recycling and climate change. Pupils should be taught about the Earth as a source of limited resources and the efficacy of recycling and the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the impact on climate.
Studies of human and physical geography continue at key stage three, where the impact of humans on changes to the environment and climate can be covered in more depth. Sustainability is also covered under the design; evaluate; technical knowledge; and cooking and nutrition topics of design and technology at key stage three. The statutory requirements to deliver education on sustainability topics are more limited at key stage four. Human rights and International law are covered in citizenship. Incomputing children should be taught to ‘understand how changes in technology affect safety.’
The National Curriculum is purposefully concise, the emphasis lies with the school to deliver statutory subjects and topics as part of a broader curriculum that they design themselves.

Sustainability education is most likely to occur in geography, but it can flourish elsewhere should the school community place importance on it themselves.  

Building sustainability
The freedom to design and deliver the school curriculum creates an opportunity to build sustainability into a wide range of topics and subjects while still meeting the statutory requirements of the National Curriculum. As mentioned above, there are many opportunities, we are limited only by our imaginations. In history at key stage three, for example, the following topic is covered: ‘Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day’.

The government’s official guidance documents suggest what could be taught under this topic.
Many schools will be guided by this as well as what has previously been taught and what they need to do prepare pupils for exams at key stage four and beyond. However, there are certainly opportunities for education for sustainability here. We faced, tackled and overcame many environmental challenges during the twentieth century and face many again now. What can pupils learn from how our major cities tackled ‘smog’ in the 1950s that could be applied to the air pollution challenges many cities now face? What can our response to climate change learn from how we confronted ozone depletion in the 1980s and 90s?
In physical education at key stage two it is a statutory requirement that pupils ‘develop flexibility, strength, technique, control and balance’. There are a huge number of ways to achieve this, for example through: cycling, running, dancing, gymnastics and skipping. Looked at through the lens of sustainability education there are some very clear benefits.
Organisations such as the charity Sustrans educate people in ‘active travel’, people learn to cycle, walk, run or scoot, it is part of their environmental education. They don’t just learn how to do it; they learn that it is enjoyable, social, refreshing and healthy. PE teachers do the same thing, thought about like this they are environmental educators.
Books such as Touching the Void by Joe Simpson can be studied in english lessons. It is a book with many environmental themes and helps readers to understand the way humans relate to their environment. Did Joe conquer nature, or did nature conquer Joe? Should humans think of themselves as being in opposition with nature? Is that a helpful thing in creating a more sustainable world?

Don’t mention the environment
Sustainability skills and values are numerous and do not need to be developed through the study of green issues alone. Creative and critical thinking, teamwork, collaboration and communication skills and their associated values of compassion, empathy, kindness, tolerance and equality are developed in the arts, humanities, sciences, religious education and physical education. When these skills and values are being developed and reinforced education for sustainability is happening.
An example of this can be found at GCSE level english. Pupils studying To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee have the opportunity to explore values such as tolerance, collaboration, empathy, kindness and compassion. By activating and reinforcing these values, english teachers (and Harper Lee) are making a very valuable contribution to sustainability for they are all values that complement sustainable living.
Creative and critical thinking skills are vital to sustainability. We need our children to grow up with the ability to critique the status quo and the creativity needed to find new, more sustainable, ways of living, playing and working. These skills are developed through a wide range of subjects, history, english, science, geography, art and design and technology. Thank your fellow educators for the contribution they are making to sustainability that they may not even be conscious of themselves.
While recognising that the pressures of attainment and Ofsted loom large, it is important to remember that sustainability education can be delivered without creating additional work; it does not have to be extra-curricular. You can choose to give a sustainability slant to just about any topic or project at school, doing it can be hugely beneficial. If you already have an interest in environmental and sustainability issues you will know that they engage pupils too. Children want to be prepared for the future that awaits them. It is our duty as educators to help them to understand the world that is emerging and to nurture the skills and values that will allow them make that future a positive one. The National Curriculum gives us opportunities to do this and can help your school achieve the prestigious international Eco-Schools Green Flag Award.
We are not robots programmed to churn out module after module of formulaic and standardised learning. We are agents of creativity who can build sustainability education into the formal curriculum of our schools. The next five years will bring challenges and opportunities, if we choose to adapt and thrive under the new conditions we can change the way we think about and deliver sustainability education.

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