For sustainability to be successful, the changes we implement must also be sustainable in the long term. Teaching children how to care for the environment they live in is, therefore, a no-brainer – but for many schools, fitting these lessons into an already bursting curriculum can feel like a challenge.
This, according to Pramod Kumar Sharma, is where many educators get it wrong. “Teaching sustainability is not some short-term project, it is a programme which must be ingrained in everything schools do,” he explains.
As senior director of education at the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), a question Sharma is often asked is: what’s next? “Teachers will come to me and say, ‘Okay, we did water. Now we want to do something else.’ It took me years to understand this mindset, but it's rooted in education systems around the world,” he says. “My response is, ‘Okay, so are you not teaching maths this year?’ That’s when it starts to hit them.”
60,000 SCHOOLS AND COUNTING
Ingratiating environmentalism into everyday learning – not treating it as a novelty – is a core part of the Eco-Schools mindset. FEE is a member-based organisation and the Eco-Schools programme was launched in 1994, long before climate change became central to mainstream news and education agendas. Today it is the largest global sustainable schools programme in the world, spanning around 60,000 schools across 72 countries.
The programme centres around action-based learning, placing climate change and positive behavioural patterns at the heart of the curriculum, inspiring educators to include earth and nature studies within existing subjects as well as new sparking ideas for new lessons.
Most importantly, the programme aims to instil core values in pupils about caring for the world around them, ensuring that the message about combating climate change continues through the next generation of innovators.
While some might worry that the reality of climate change is a heavy burden to place on young people, FEE and its associated programmes takes a much more open approach, Kristina Madsen, international coordinator of education at the organisation explains.
“We sometimes tend to call youth the leaders of tomorrow. But why are they not leaders of today?"
“We sometimes tend to call youth the leaders of tomorrow. But why are they not leaders of today? Why can't we bring in their voices from a young age and make them part of the conversation?” She asks.
INSTILLING CORE VALUES
The Eco-Schools programme is based on seven key steps, beginning with the forming of student-led eco-committees that meet regularly to discuss environmental and social actions for the school, to the school producing its own “Eco Code” outlining a long-term commitment to sustainability.
“Everything that we try to do here from the head office needs to make sense for as many countries as possible,” Madsen says. “But what’s universal is that we do need to have this clear participation of all age groups. It means the learning process might take some difficult turns, but this inclusive approach is more beneficial in the long run.”
“Enjoyment and appreciation of nature is a learnt behaviour,” adds Sharma. “We have to start with these lessons early in life so that children really make the connection – that sustainability is at the heart of everything we do – and that they enjoy it and carry the learning process through primary, secondary and tertiary education.”
Institutions signing up to the Eco-Schools programme have autonomy to use the lessons as they wish; FEE simply provides the online teaching tools and resources to guide teachers and ensure that the content being taught to students is based on up to date scientific findings.
“If you ask a school, what do you do for environmental education? They will give you a list: ‘We work on waste, we save energy’ and all those things. Hardly any schools will say that they are changing behaviours of students, that they are giving them skills to solve problems. But we don’t want education to happen by accident,” says Sharma.
It’s not that Sharma is a negative person. Rather, he is not willing to sit back and get complacent about the success of FEE so far – 60,000 schools is a small dent by his own estimations.
“There are 130,000 schools just in the US, and around 1.4 million in India. Meanwhile, the investment being made into education is not matching the investment that is being done to increase consumption,” he warns. “I'm trying to get people out of their comfort zone, because if we want to see change, we have to ask difficult questions of ourselves.”
ENGAGING PUPILS DURING TIMES OF ADVERSITY
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic has undeniably forced educators out of their comfort zones. And when government-mandated lockdowns prevented schools around the world from opening or taking children outside, many schools within the FEE network found intuitive ways to keep students engaged.
One member school in the Bahamas set up a “virtual coral reef field trip”, for example, which included a short film and interactive tools for students in the region to use and learn more about the important role of coral reefs in tourism and fishing industries. In the US, the National Wildlife Federation launched an “Eco-Schools at Home” resource, providing home-learning modules about sustainability for schools, teachers and parents during various stages of remote learning.
In 2020, students across the globe also had the opportunity to participate in an international campaign on the theme of Water, Sanitation and Health as part of a wider campaign by Eco-Schools to keep sustainability an active part of the curriculum during lockdown.
For Sharma, the creativity shown through FEE member schools' efforts during such a difficult time has been a silver lining and provided hope for the future. “We are constantly humbled by the kind of work taking place in Eco-Schools,” he says. “Sometimes we see ideas which we would never have thought of. It’s a constant learning experience for all of us.”
Eco-Schools is part of the HundrED Hall of Fame. If you would like to submit your innovation for the next Global Collection review, you can apply now.