When looking at the barriers and opportunities for environmental education I am filled with both fear and hope. I aim to share not just the state of play of environmental sustainability and education in schools but the prospect of what could be possible with a larger understanding and focus.
Education contributing to the problem of environmental sustainability
Environmental sustainability is about making connections and considering complexity to create better outcomes for all on this planet. Education contributes to the problem of environmental sustainability by oversimplifying these complexities and not helping students make connections where there is an opportunity to do so. Some people in education have attempted to simplify the complexity of learning by exerting control or attempting to exert control. This, in education for a long time, has meant a lack of individual and authentic learning opportunities due to standardization, external measurement and learning decisions being made by non-educators.
When we try and measure learning using external validation it seems to me to be an attempt to control the process of learning when it is that very control that does not allow for deeper learning to truly take place. This model of education is contributing to the type of thinking that has human beings not considering all necessary aspects before making decisions or taking action for and with sustainability in mind.
Peter Senge (2011) talks about the industrial age system of education and the impact this has had on schools today. Schools have disconnected from the world and this disconnection contributes greatly to the lack of connection and understanding to the natural world and systems. Schools for a long time have divided into subject areas and disciplines with teachers working in isolation. This isolation does not encourage students to make connections and get to the deeper thinking to make it meaningful in their own context and be based on the reality of how the world works, not a linear progression.
Barriers to education sustainability education
In all the schools in many countries that I have worked with around the world environmental sustainability can be anything from the mission that drives the school, to a brief afterthought, perhaps if one educator happens to be passionate about it. I find myself asking why that is the case. How could schools be so very different in their approaches when we all live on the same planet and are a part of the same natural systems affecting every aspect of our lives? Some answers can be found in the barriers to environmental sustainability education.
- The system itself is built to be driving towards how to make a living rather than being values driven, seeking happiness and fulfillment. Author David Orr believes a focus on values would not only improve learning but also help humans to live more harmoniously with the planet.
- The external pressure of measurement and ranking. There seems to be a rift between those who believe the environment should take precedence and those who do not. Some people even worry about being associated with the environmental movement for fear of being labeled or ostracized. This can be a major challenge for education as perception and opinion are very powerful motivators and de motivators.
- A perceived or real lack of knowledge about sustainability and the environment by educators, both a carry over from the sage on the stage days of teaching and a fear of exploring with students rather than telling students. This is a real barrier but the mindset of not being the all knowing can be changed through professional learning and increased opportunities to do so in teams.
- The lack of support from leadership. The leaders own values system and background comes into play heavily and leaders are also reluctant if their own background is not strong in the area of environmental sustainability. A leader’s preferred style will dictate behavior. So not only feeling supported by the leader but also following the style of the leader can be a barrier if that leader does not seek environmental sustainability in schools.
- Lack of time with all the other things teachers must cover. Teachers feel the pressure to cram information into students to help them achieve the next level of the education system and this can be a barrier as there is a perceived lack of time to integrate sustainability learning.
The Challenges for education are vast but an understanding of these barriers can lead to many opportunities for change, growth and improved student learning in schools.
Education contributing to the solutions for environmental sustainability
Author David Orr talks about learning being participatory and experiential. Environmental sustainability offers this type of learning in many different ways. The same barriers that cause this type of learning to not be common practice are also excellent leverage points for possible change both in student connection and learning outcomes, not to mention the outcome of creating a better planet.
There are few better ways to get students to deeper inquiry, and connected learning, than to have them engaged in real issues that have deep connected meaning to them, their family and their community. Author Steve Van Matre found that Environmental action is easier to entice when the educational focus is on concrete and local changes. He suggests that personal lifestyle changes are the easiest to make, because people can control their lifestyle choices, whereas they cannot necessarily understand the deep interconnected nature of major issues and events at all stages.
This presents a major opportunity for K-12 schools to scaffold learning from 4 year olds to 18 years olds in terms of their knowledge, skills and understanding in terms of sustainability. Imagine a world where graduates from schools were well versed with the depth of knowledge, the skills to act, an understanding of the connectedness of systems and the desire and motivation to make the world a better place. Schools would not need to be seeking to connect to the local community; they would be the local community.
Some teachers and schools see project based learning as the way forward to meet the learning needs for todays students and for environmental sustainability this approach has proven to increase the learning outcomes for knowledge, skills, and understanding. In my own experience I have seen the success in learning and particularly making deeper connections through concept based learning and working towards a meaningful goal as a team or individually.
The leverage point of supporting teachers to facilitate this kind of learning is the reason I have invested so much time and effort into Compass Education. We are seeking to support schools, teachers, leaders and all stake holders to achieve a sustainable future. The students who engage in work of this nature are connected more deeply to their communities and globally, they feel empowered to act and have the skills to do so.
Education could be the place where students learn what it means to be a part of something meaningful within communities and carry that forward throughout their lives. The, Ellen McArthur Foundation, is seeking to support the understanding that these are not opposing forces and can in fact offer great opportunity both financially and for natural systems.
The Circular Economy 100 is starting to network business and educational institutions to strive towards a more generative approach for the economic cycles. William McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle (2002), and Michael Braungart, who wrote The Upcycle (2013), both emphasize designing for abundance and document how a revolution of design thinking has occurred in some industries. Schools are a perfect place to cultivate this kind of thinking and the impact on environmental sustainability could be tremendous.
Many schools miss a great opportunity to use their own school grounds and immediate surroundings as an opportunity for deep and connected learning. The Children and Nature Network speaks to the needs and opportunities that arise when we offer opportunity for deep connection to nature for kids. There are many opportunities in schools to deepen the learning by embracing that connection, not to mention the human need for that connection in relation to happiness.
The International School Grounds Alliance works to help schools maximize the learning possibilities on site. Environmental Sustainability can be embraced and used as a learning opportunity on school grounds as schools, like any organization, are rich with data waiting to be mined and used for learning.
Education both contributes to the problem of environmental sustainability and offers the potential for great solutions for environmental sustainability. Within the larger systems of schools there are many leverage points that can be used to move not only the learning forward for students but create a more sustainable and just world. The key now, I believe, will be to vision what is possible, recognize the barriers and leverage points, and then create education systems that lead us to the ultimate goal of fulfillment and sustainability.
For further information on this topic, please see my full paper published in the library area of this site.
Read other posts by Mike Johnston
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