David W. Hicks

Teaching for a Better World: Learning for sustainability

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A sustainable future

The notion of 'sustainability' emerged in the 1980s and has become the key concept for exploring the impact of human activity on the planet. Put at its most simple any human activity is sustainable if it can continue fairly indefinitely without causing harm to either people or planet. Alternatively, any human activity that results in on-going harm to either people or planet is the opposite – unsustainable. It has now become clear that many of our practices today come in the latter category.

At the Earth Summit in 1992 this vital concept became enshrined in national and international policy and debate. This occurred because it was then recognised that human activity was increasingly threatening the biosphere – that narrow zone of earth, air, water – on which all life (plants, creatures, humans) depends. It also occurred because it was recognised that issues of development, i.e. global wealth and poverty, were increasingly threatening people's life chances in both poor and rich countries. It is vitally important therefore that one understands what some of the key features of a more sustainable future would be. Unless one is able to visualise these one has no clear goal to work towards. See in particular Visser’s The Top 50 Sustainability Books (2009), a highly commended overview of fifty years of research and writing on these matters, and also Washington’s Demystifying Sustainability (2015). Some of the key elements of such a future can also be found in chapters 6-13 Sustainable Schools, Sustainable Futures [pdf18].

Unsustainable times

What are the origins of this global crisis of unsustainability? Its roots lie at the heart of what, until recently, we have taken to be our greatest successes over the last 250 years – the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, colonial empires and 20th century globalisation. During this period the countries of Europe and North America grew rich often at the expense of African and Asian countries. Rich world development also occurred at the expense of the natural world, through the plundering of its resources and its subsequent use as a receptacle for human wastes. The historical background to the damage these practices are causing both to people and planet can be found in chapter 1 of Sustainable Schools, Sustainable Futures [pdf18]. Over the last thirty years such practices have been accentuated by the neoliberal free-market view of economics. What we took to be ‘progress’ and rising standards of living brought benefits to part of the world’s population but at the expense of the poor and the planet’s life support systems – thus the global crisis of unsustainability. Three of the main issues we face today are those to do with climate change, energy issues and the limits to growth. Each of these is already impacting significantly on our lives, both locally and globally. An introduction to these matters can be found in the article ‘A sustainable future: four challenges’ [pdf16].

Ideological differences

It is important to recognise that the concepts of sustainability and unsustainability are contested, i.e. different political ideologies and worldviews analyse the perceived problems and their possible solutions in differing ways. Take, for example, the difference between technocentric and ecocentric views of sustainability.

A technocentric worldview may deny that there is a crisis of environment/development or, alternatively, sees the route towards a more sustainable future as based on technical solutions and government regulation. This worldview is reformist in that it believes economic growth should continue as before. It does not involve any radical rethinking of western consumerism and lifestyles which many see as the main cause of the current global predicament. An ecocentric worldview sees the world economic system itself as in need of radical change with social, economic and environmental goals as being of equal importance. Only this, deeper thinkers argue, will lead to a more sustainable society. The need for human well-being must not damage the environment, economic growth must promote equity and conservation must not diminish human well-being. This would require a major democratisation of prevailing patterns of hierarchy and power. For a more detailed exploration of the relationship between ideology, society and education see Education & Ideology.

Education for sustainability

At the first Earth Summit it was also recognised that education, at all levels, had a crucial role to play in helping citizens understand and act on issues relating to the welfare of people and planet. The term education for sustainable development (ESD) and education for sustainability (EFS), as well as learning for sustainability and sustainability education, are increasingly used to highlight the crucial role of education in alerting all sectors of society to the hazards that lie ahead and the skills needed to help mitigate them. Education for sustainability thus needs to be a central element in all curricula and at all levels. Amongst the useful and inspirational resources available for teachers are Sustainable Schools, Sustainable Futures [pdf18], Wals and Corcoran (2012) Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change, Netherlands: Wageningen Academic and Corcoran, Weakland and Wals (2017) Envisioning Futures for Environmental and Sustainability Education, Wageningen Academic, also the national network, Sustainability and Environmental Education (SEEd) available at: www.se-ed.co.uk.

Sustainable schools

Whilst initially in the UK education for sustainability was viewed as a cross-curricular theme to which all subjects could contribute it received a significant boost when the focus was widened to the notion of 'sustainable schools'. At one step this moved issues of sustainability from an optional element in the curriculum to a matter of whole-school policy affecting every aspect of school life. However, currently, under a Conservative government this has reverted to a matter of individual choice for schools.

The original strategy on Sustainable Schools identified eight 'doorways' to education for sustainability. These are: i) food and drink; ii) energy and water; iii) travel and traffic; iv) purchasing and waste; v) buildings and grounds; vi) inclusion and participation; vii) local well being; viii) global citizenship. Detailed ways in which such themes can be creatively explored in the classroom can be found in Sustainable Schools, Sustainable Futures [pdf18].

Education for sustainability has been subject to Ofsted (2009) inspections and one survey encouragingly reported that:

Source: https://www.lincolnshire.gov.uk/upload/public/attachments/1176/education_for_sustainable_development__ofsted_09.pdf

It should be noted that when a change of government occurs priorities in education also change. Conservatives thus downplayed many of the educational initiatives of the previous Labour government, including the National Framework for Sustainable Schools. Such initiatives can still offer a valuable model of good practice in education for sustainability and one which should transcend party differences.

The ‘long transition’

All schools now need to be exploring: i) the need for and examples of more sustainable lifestyles at all levels of society; ii) the causes and impacts of climate change and procedures for its mitigation and adaptation; iii) the difficult cultural transition that has begun to occur in the shift from a high-carbon to a low-carbon society. See Changing Climate and [pdf13]. Such matters require a whole-school approach as exemplified by UNESCO’s programme Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future [www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/]. All schools have a major part to play in the face of local-global issues such as climate change, ethical consumerism, energy use and post-carbon living. All these issues have an impact on schools and their local communities. Helping pupils and students engage with them critically and creatively results in greater 'ownership' of the issues and a willingness to engage in active citizenship now and for the future.

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