How do I make sure sustainability is part of school life?
Teachers all over the world need to understand two things before tackling this question of ‘how’ to bring sustainability into school life. First, achieving sustainability must be society’s top priority because it means ridding our world of our greatest problems. We all wish we could help the 648 million people living in extreme poverty who are unable to find their next meal. We all wish we could safeguard the animals we learned about as kids from going extinct forever. We all wish we could protect our most beautiful nature spots from being ravaged by super storms and ensure those places still exist for our grandchildren to also enjoy. In essence, sustainability means saving the world. The second thing teachers need to understand is that the most impactful profession there is when it comes to saving the world is that of a teacher. Nelson Mandela is correct in saying that ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’ This is because saving the world is not a job for one single person, but a job for every single person. What teachers can do is to equip, motivate and mobilize generations of youth to stand up for sustainability, regardless of what career they choose to pursue in the future. Sustainability requires the will of the people and a teacher can greatly sway the will of the people; therefore, teachers must realize that the future is dependent on what happens in our classrooms and schools. Present education systems are vastly behind in prioritizing sustainability education or Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), and so it is up to us to make certain that schools are championing sustainability.
Embedding ESD into the K-12 curriculum has been the most significant part of my work as an educator and I, along with the teachers in my school, have witnessed the amazing achievements of our students that resulted from our updated teaching strategies, some of which I am honored to now share with our global community of teachers.
First of all, embedding sustainability into your lessons does not require you to use additional time and energy to completely overhaul your learning objectives, or to even stop abiding by your country’s prescribed curriculum. Bring sustainability into your teaching by simply changing the context in which you present your lessons and assess your students. Contextualize your lessons around specific social issues that are happening in the real-world, especially those impacting your immediate community or region. Every academic competency, lesson or subject can be learned through a lens of sustainability.
For example, in an English class, you are teaching your students about the narrative structure or how to structure a story’s plot. Instead of choosing a random story to demonstrate as an example, choose a story that includes a natural calamity in its plot. Here, you can use the story as a springboard for students to ask questions related to the effect of human activity on the growing climate crisis, causing more frequent & more disastrous weather events. Not only did you comply with the prescribed learning objectives of your English subject’s curriculum, you also raised awareness about a major global crisis & built empathy for people facing such calamities.
This same strategy of contextualizing your lessons to real-world social issues applies to all academic subject areas. Apply your biology lessons on the digestive system to malnutrition in the local poverty-stricken community, apply your history lessons on World War II to current global conflicts, or apply math lessons about probability and statistics to weather forecasting in relation to climate change. In my own class about business and entrepreneurship, I teach students to design a business plan in the context of social enterprises by exchanging the age-old model of ‘the bottom-line’ with the sustainable model of ‘the triple bottom-line’.
As teachers, we need to maximize the developmental years of our students because they will carry the mental models and the behavioral habits that we instill in them for the rest of their lives. By ingraining the importance of sustainability in everyday life through our lessons, teachers will be able to normalize global citizenship and civic mindedness.
When we hear the word ‘sustainability’, there is often a misconception that this idea focuses solely on environmental issues or ‘going green’. What the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SGDs) do so well is illustrate the vast range of issues related to sustainability, including environmentalism, social equity and economic development.
An excellent strategy that teachers should capitalize on is collaborating with other academic subjects on interdisciplinary instruction. To educate students about true sustainability, teachers must demonstrate the interconnectedness of the real-world by showing the connections among all academic subjects. To live and thrive in the real-world, one must access competencies one learned from different subject areas. This is especially important if our goal as educators is to prepare all students to solve problems and enact positive change towards a sustainable world. The world and the way we live in it is beautifully complex and requires us to simultaneously apply knowledge & skills from multiple domains. Our teaching should reflect this.
Regardless of what subject you teach, it’s important to enrich your lessons with other subject areas. Theme-based learning is more often used by teachers in primary school, but its advantages need to motivate teachers of all age levels. As an English teacher, for example, assess your students’ communication skills with a sustainability-related topic being discussed in History or in Science class.
Using our school as an example, teachers in each of our K-12 grade levels collaborate on several interdisciplinary projects over the course of the school year, connected to the same community issue chosen by teachers for their grade level. For example, Grade 1 students learn in the context of marine life conservation, Grade 3 students learn in the context of impoverished farmers in our community, Grade 7 students learn in the context of indigenous people in the Philippines, Grade 10 students learn in the context of the human rights of the incarcerated, and so on. Because students spend an entire year learning about the complexities of a local social issue through their various academic subjects, students gain an incredibly rich and systemic awareness of a sustainability-related problem, leading them to aspire to thoughtfully and strategically solve that problem.
We should also note that collaborating can lessen the work of both students and teachers because the same assignment or project can be assessed by different subject area teachers, as long as each subject area ensures their learning outcomes are met.
Teachers have the unique capacity to design the future we hope to see. If we hope to live in a world free of hunger, free of wars and free of worsening climate disasters, teachers need to normalize a way of thinking and living that champions sustainability. Students need to be equipped with future-ready skills and the motivation to save the world they will inherit, and with the strategies mentioned above, teachers can spark the change this world desperately needs.
Ilan Enverga is a K-12 educator & SDG advocate from the Philippines. As a high school teacher and school administrator at ISBB, he leads teacher training, curriculum development and student empowerment initiatives towards realizing an academic program that infuses real-world civic engagement across preschool, elementary school & high school. As part of the UNESCO SDG4Youth Network, Ilan champions the voices and solutions of youth in transforming education all over the world, especially towards achieving the TES Youth Declaration. He continues his childhood passion for community service in both his personal and professional life.