Sustainability. Buzzword of the 21st century and a concept that has earned its place as a key consideration in government agendas and, increasingly so, business models, worldwide. So how has this translated in respect to education? Just how many schools have ‘gone green’ and how many more have it jotted down on their 2018 and beyond agenda?
Mike Wolfe, a sustainable development advocate from CREATE, claims that a child’s interest in the subject of environmental sustainability peaks between the ages of 9 and 14, with studies revealing a positive correlation between schools that have successfully integrated sustainability into the curriculum and students’ academic results. It also goes without saying that in the current climate (pun intended) an education grounded in sustainability is a powerful means of boosting a student’s employability prospects upon graduation.
The discipline of sustainability draws on politics, economics, philosophy and social sciences as well as the hard sciences to foster within students a number of values and skills that are highly sought after by global corporations seeking to drastically reduce carbon emissions and develop technologies of the future. Ford, Tesla, Samsung, Apple, Honda and Google are key examples of companies doing this. Sustainability skills and environmental awareness in employees are key priorities for businesses seeking to transform their business model in light of growing sustainability problems - or at the very least for those companies needing to change their operations in order to adhere to new environmental legislation.
So why are schools seemingly reticent to jump on the bandwagon? Why is sustainability not yet a core subject in the national curriculum of all countries? It’s bad enough that the vast majority of S&MEs, particularly those in developing nations where there remain misconceived notions of sustainability’s impact on profits, still deem Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) superfluous, but shouldn’t schools worldwide be taking the lead and shifting the curriculum to take into account changing global priorities? They are, after all, shaping our citizens of the future.
Who IS getting it right?
Admittedly, there are some fantastic examples of schools, universities and colleges worldwide that are leading the way in this respect. There is Bali’s Green School, an innovative campus set in the lush foothills of Bali, Indonesia which educates over 200 children representing more than 40 nationalities and which has been voted the Greenest School on Earth several times now. The school has garnered a reputation for maintaining high academic standards while espousing environmentalism at every opportune moment.
It is one of a growing number of schools offering a progressive curriculum based on educating green leaders in global citizenship, with specialised programs on offer including Green Studies, Environmental Science and Entrepreneurial Learning. The entire campus is made from locally sourced bamboo, there is an onsite bird conservation centre and the school uses innovative technology to harness the power of a hydroelectric plant built downstream, supplying the school with 100 percent of its energy. The school’s inspiring philosophy is that being in nature enhances, rather than distracts from, a child’s learning and so all classrooms are open air, enabling a constant connection to the environment.
“We want to create future green leaders — we need green leaders,” Green School founder John Hardy was quoted saying to New York Times. “We want to teach kids that the world is not indestructible.”
Then you have Thailand’s Krabi International School – touted the country’s greenest and offering a similarly progressive curriculum within a low-carbon footprint campus. The school’s onsite solar panels generate so much power that the school is now working with local power producers to allow excess power to be fed back into the local grid, and with an onsite recycling centre, inbuilt insulation to reduce the need for air conditioning and an elaborate network of above and below ground catchment systems which supply the school with 2,100,000-litres of water, Krabi International School is truly an innovative project – the first of its kind in the country.
And take Howe Dell Primary in Hatfield – the UK’s ‘greenest’ primary school and a true experimentation in green architecture. With sedum roofs constructed from plants, desks made from recycled drainpipes, solar panels and wind turbines for generating energy and the country’s first Inter-seasonal Heat Transfer (IHT) system built under the school’s playground to store and reheat water naturally, the school’s physical model is inspiring architects and designers worldwide. The school curriculum also incorporates sustainable education principles and recently Howe Dell Primary won the Eco-Schools Green Flag award for its emphasis on sustainable development and of the awareness of personal responsibility for the environment.
Let’s talk infrastructure
Sustainable design in a school or learning institution can be more than just responsible earth stewardship. Additional benefits include a positive change in student behaviour, lower operational costs and improved student learning. According to a Heschong Mahone Group study, the physical layout and conditions of classrooms have a monumental impact on student performance. Natural daylight for example can improve not only an instructor’s ability to disseminate information but also provide desirable working conditions for students. And, according to a report produced by The Energy Centre of Wisconsin in 2005, harvesting daylight through proper sensors and controls can save universities and schools more than 20 percent on operating costs. The benefits are innumerable!
But the method is important. Universities and schools should be working with students to collaboratively come up with innovative sustainability solutions and infrastructure improvements. By including students in the process, it fosters within them a sense of ownership, pride and awareness of the impact of their decisions, ultimately instilling in them a basic instinct for sustainable decision-making.
Let’s recap the ultimate purpose of education. Over time, educational thought leaders and institutions have outlined the following as its key goals:
- To prepare children for citizenship
- To cultivate a skilled workforce
- To teach cultural literacy
- To help students become critical thinkers
- To help students compete in a global marketplace
Now let’s approach these priorities from a sustainability education perspective.
A green education encompasses hands-on skill development, enabling students to cultivate skills necessary to thrive in a 21st century workplace and enter into adulthood as concerned, compassionate, and considerate citizens. Skills such as interdisciplinary thinking, critical thinking, collaborative approaches to solving problems and holistic thinking are encompassed by the pedagogy of problem-based learning (PBL) within a sustainability framework, providing students with opportunities to learn “how to think” rather than “what to think”.
So, integrating sustainability into the school curriculum is a no-brainer, right?
What education leaders must remember moving forward is that to operationalise sustainability-based education, teaching approaches must focus on elements relating to the processes of learning, rather than the accumulation of knowledge - to develop within graduates the capability to improvise, adapt, innovate, and be creative. In this way, we will truly cultivate green leaders of the future.