26 October 2023
In a world grappling with interconnected global challenges, the importance of sustainability education cannot be overstated. It’s not just about knowledge; it’s about equipping learners of all ages with the skills, values, and agency needed to address issues like climate change, loss of biodiversity, unsustainable resource use, and social inequality. Sustainability education empowers individuals to make informed decisions and take collective action, fostering a sense of responsibility to care for our planet and its people.
UNESCO describes education for sustainable development as the provision of “knowledge, skills, values, and agency to address interconnected global challenges including climate change, loss of biodiversity, unsustainable use of resources, and inequality”.
Educational institutions are the backbone of this transformative journey. They hold the power to reinforce and develop the knowledge, skills, values, and worldviews necessary for individuals to act in ways that contribute to more sustainable living. Schools are more than just academic settings; they’re incubators of future global citizens who can drive change in the world.
Empowering Young Minds: Initiatives in Schools for Sustainability Education
Issues surrounding climate change, the environment, and sustainability are more often associated with science and geography subjects in schools and K-12 curricula. However, experts are calling for a more interdisciplinary approach.
Whilst it is important to grasp the technical aspects of environmental challenges, students should also be aware of how to translate that knowledge into meaningful action. It’s a holistic approach that integrates science, governance, and social responsibility.
As Tricia Seow, Co-Chair of the NIE Sustainability Learning Lab, aptly puts it, “One way to effectively engage students on sustainability issues is to explicitly provide opportunities for students to combine the environmental knowledge learned in Geography and Science with knowledge about governance learned in Social Studies.”
As part of their future Green Plan to accelerate sustainability efforts, Singapore’s Ministry of Education introduced the Eco Stewardship Programme aiming to “nurture a culture of sustainable habits across all aspects of daily life in the next generation”. In science lessons, students learn about renewable energy; in food and consumer education concepts of food waste, waste management and carbon footprint make an appearance; in character education challenges surrounding e-waste are brought up.
Nonetheless, the road to comprehensive sustainability education is not without its bumps. Schools worldwide are still at the early stages of this integration journey, often competing with other priorities when it comes to curriculum changes. Speaking at the Singapore Association of Private Education’s Annual Conference, Seow stressed the need for structural support for educators to discuss and work together with partners.
Another challenge is the lack of standardised guidance on how to teach sustainability. A multidisciplinary approach to sustainability education calls for substantial transformations within current curricula. According to a UNESCO study, 40% of teachers are confident in teaching cognitive dimensions of climate change, but only 20% can explain well how to take action.
Nurturing Tomorrow’s Changemakers: Higher Education’s Role in Sustainability
The journey does not end with basic education. Colleges and universities play a pivotal role in shaping the future by educating global citizens who carry their sustainability mindset into the workforce and different industries.
Director of IE University’s Sustainability Office Nicole Rosow, speaking at EDUtech Europe 2023, introducing more about the institution’s green practices and sustainability efforts. Rosow shared “We are the ones training the next generation of thought leaders, climate activists, researchers, innovators, and entrepreneurs and I think all of those different aspects are the things that are going to make the world more sustainable”.
Emphasising the role of education in achieving socio-ecological transition, Kelvin Frisquet of the Shift Project, a French think tank advocating for the shift to a post-carbon economy, stresses the need to develop competencies and skills in future professionals in order to achieve transformation.
Whilst there are some efforts to grow interest in the subject matter, Frisquet says it is not enough. “To educate all graduates, all students, we need to transform all courses, all programmes”. In a study conducted among French higher education institutions in 2019, the Shift Project found that 76% of programmes did not offer any courses addressing climate change issues. In 2022, only 5% of finance programmes in France incorporated ecological issues.
Looking ahead, Frisquet hopes to see more institutional support to push this issue along further, such as redefining institution rankings, accreditation, and certifications. Institutions across the world are starting to introduce compulsory modules in sustainability and climate issues. From 2024, students enrolled in the University of Barcelona will be required to take a mandatory course on the climate crisis.
Sustainability is not a mere addendum to education; it is a critical element of our global future. An informed public is paramount in making decisions that safeguard our environment, promote economic opportunities, nurture healthier communities, ensure equitable access to resources, celebrate diversity and cultures, and build resiliency in the face of an ever-changing climate.
The long-term success of these goals hinges on the collective efforts of all education stakeholders to ensure greater access to quality education that reflects the pressing societal challenges, especially environmental concerns. Transforming educational systems will arm today’s youth with the knowledge and skills they need to lead us towards genuine socio-ecological transformation.
Embedding HE sustainability in criteria for accrediting degrees
Getting every school climate-ready: how countries are integrating climate change issues in education
Singapore Management University undergrads to take a sustainability module from 2023, take one course in the field from 2024
Fostering Sustainability in Schools and Higher Education Institutions: Building a Greener Future
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