Sustainability education

The world around us is changing faster than ever before, with exponential innovations, challenges, and concerns all rapidly expanding. Tied to these changes are a series of looming social, economic and environmental wicked problems, challenges and consequences. Many of these are well known, and have started making themselves very apparent in recent times. But there are a plethora of others we simply cannot see (yet), which have been slowly brewing, and will inevitably poke their heads and unleash a choir of devastating consequences. The latest Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect example of one of these wicked problems we simply did not see coming, or didn’t pay enough attention to. However, regardless of whether we can see the challenges and consequences or not, we need to be building an education system that is resilient and adaptable enough to overcome these challenges. Our education systems also needs to be able to prepare youth for a highly volatile, uncertain and complex world.  

Welcome to our first blog piece in our Trends Influencing Education blog series, where we will be exploring some micro and macro trends influencing (or should be influencing) the education industry as a whole. Here we go, hold on tight.  

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were released by the United Nations in 2015 in order to provide clear frameworks, guidelines and targets for countries to adopt in accordance with their own priorities and the environmental challenges of the world at large. It is clear that Sustainable Development becomes part of our natural operating framework, and it is. All over the world governments and business are starting to incorporate the SDGs and Sustainable Development frameworks into their policies, planning, business models and action. If this is where the world is heading, it would only make sense our education systems and schools follow suit. It would make sense that schools aim to develop youth well versed in the SDGs and Sustainable Development? 

Unfortunately we ain't even close.

Here in South Africa, and elsewhere in the world, the public schooling sector is slow in responding to real-world trends and needs. Embracing the SDGs and sustainability education is no exception. At a national level there is no consolidated approach to incorporating the SDGs into the curriculum. Teachers are not required to be knowledgeable on Sustainable Development. Schools are not required to meet any Sustainable Development criteria in their infrastructure, buildings and operations. 

Education systems as a whole get a lot of slack, often from external lenses, for not having changed much over the last 100 years. To some extent, this is true – school language, structure and interactions are very similar to what they were 50, 80 and even 100 years ago. This said, it would be harsh to claim that education has remained completely stagnant, there are many streams which are gathering momentum. 

Technology, social awareness, cross-curricular work, alternative teaching approaches, and more inclusive teaching methods are just some of the more ground-breaking streams of change that have been building in schools over time. We often don’t appreciate this enough and see some of the positive light currently being shed within education. However, much of the positive light is being generated by the private and independent schooling sector. Even so, with all the flexibility and independence the private and independent schools have, very little of this light is directed toward the SDGs and Sustainable Development

Daily we become more aware that the world is facing some of its greatest social, environmental and economic challenges. It is essential that our education systems and schools embrace the SDGs and Sustainable Development as a key pillar. 

In order for us to meet the pressing challenges facing us, it is required that education systems and schools nurture future generations which are geared toward understanding the SDGs, their interconnection, and how to implement and integrate them into our lives and work. Applying and incorporating the SDGs can be done in many ways, mostly due to the flexibility of the SDG framework. In a school and curriculum context the SDGs allow the young learner to link the concepts of poverty to climate change; to align their understanding of human consumption with environmental damage; and to see collaboration and innovation as solutions to complex challenges and problems.

So what can schools start doing? If there is no national drive, requirements or consolidated approach, what can schools be expected to do? If schools don’t have the SDGs and Sustainable Development as a key pillar and focus, what can teachers be expected to do? What resources are available to support teachers? 

Here are a few thoughts.

There are so many ways to do this, here are a few of our suggestions, thoughts, and resources for incorporate the SDGs into the fabric of a school: 

  1. Curriculum: All subjects can be linked to an SDG in one way or another. Find topics, themes and framings for lesson content that works toward actively engaging learners in a specific SDG. Make this clear at the beginning of a lesson. We offer a wide range of curriculum and lessons that can help you do this.   
  2. Free resources: The United Nations have a vast amount of information and resources available to explore, understand, and apply the SDGs in the classroom.
  3. School policy: The 17 global goals can be applied as a policy framework upon which school management can design and tailor-fit school policies relating directly to each goal. This is beneficial in the long term and can have a large influence on the way a school functions in terms of procurement, community engagement, infrastructure and operations, education and equality. 
  4. School/grade/subject projects: Base school projects on the SDGs. This will immediately engage learners with the specific details and structure of each, or many goals. This shouldn’t be too hard as the goals relate directly to national standards such as CAPS; IEB and IB curricula (the goals align to these curricula on varying levels). 
  5. Leverage of other subject trends: Entrepreneurship is gaining traction as a key topic that should be taught in schools. In achieving sustainable development there is an abundance of opportunities for innovative business ideas, systems, and solutions. Use societal and environmental challenges as a base for creating innovative business ideas and teaching entrepreneurship. Our Business for Social Good is a great example of a project that leverages entrepreneurship and personal development to teach the sustainability education and the SDGs.   
  6. School infrastructure and systems: Let the school environment be an example of Sustainable Development. Work on transforming your school waste systems, energy systems, grounds, and more so that the school is an environment of daily place-based-learning. 

Whether schools begin integrating them on a large or small-scale, the benefits of engaging youth with the SDGs will only pay off over time as these goals promote the type of long term thinking that results in short term innovation and out-the-box thinking – something which humans are good at during pressing times.

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