Education for Sustainability: a bit more on what it means

Education for Sustainability

A few days ago I shared with you my definition of Education for Sustainability (EFS). Of course, EFS can look like different things to different people, depending on who, what and where you teach. But in general, it’s a whole new way of looking at how we teach. As the Sustainable Schools Project puts it, EFS is learning that links knowledge, inquiry and action to help students build a healthy future for their communities and the planet.

Here are a few more ways to describe Education for Sustainability.


Education for Sustainability is place-based.

  • Many districts (including my own) ask teachers to use prescribed curricular programs, written and sold by companies far removed from local classrooms. While these curricula are often research-based, they can leave both students and teachers bored and unchallenged.  Teachers approach their subject by saying: “on Day 1, we will do this; on Day 2, we will do this,” no matter what their students seem to need.
  • In contrast, EFS asks teachers to approach their subject by saying: “What is happening in our classroom or community? Can I use any of it to meet learning standards and benchmarks?”
  • Here’s an example. My reading curriculum has as one of its benchmarks “Great readers ask questions as they read.” It then asks the teacher to read aloud the book Baby Talk by Joy Cowley. This is a book about animal babies of all kinds. Instead of teaching this book automatically, I could make note of what students have been wondering and discussing in the classroom lately. Have kids been asking about why the leaves are falling? Find a book on why trees lose their leaves, and use this to stimulate questions as we read.
  • Teachers can look at what is going on in their wider community as well, and listen to students’ conversations to help determine where to steer their lessons.


Education for Sustainability integrates the curriculum.

  • One of the biggest take-aways I got from the EFS Institute was the importance of having a wider theme that threads throughout your entire curriculum. Research supports integrated instruction. It’s better for students’ brains and their interest level.
  • A de-emphasis on having separate times for social studies, science, math, and reading makes sense. In the world outside of school, whose job requires an employee to do math for 45 minutes, then completely stop what they are doing and switch into reading mode? This isn’t how students will think and learn when they are out of school, and it shouldn’t be how we teach them in school.
  • To tie your curriculum together, the EFS Institute suggested that teachers come up with a “Big Idea” that threads throughout the year. Here is a list of Big Ideas that relate to sustainability. Having a Big Idea will give meaning and purpose to your curriculum. It will make sure that everything you teach is related in some way to the bigger idea of sustainability and understanding one aspect of how the world works.
  • Here’s an example. Let’s say you decide that your Big Idea is Cycles, because you want your students to really grasp the idea that every organism/system goes through different stages. From here on out, every time you begin a unit or delve into a lesson, you can start by saying “How will this help them learn more about cycles?”


Education for Sustainability empowers students (in several ways).

  • First, it encourages students to ask questions. When you are not stuck to a prescribed set of activities, you can really listen to kids’ questions and use them to steer your teaching. If kids are really interested in where water goes after you flush the toilet, you can use this curiosity to delve into understanding our water supply. If kids are really interested in why some families are homeless, you can use this momentum to explore the root causes of poverty.
  • Second, it helps them understand how the world around them works. Because Education for Sustainability asks students and teachers to look at what is going on in their community, they will leave these investigations with just that – a better understanding of their community. For kindergarten, this might be a better understanding of their classroom and how to be a good friend. For fifth grade, it might be an awareness of how climate change is affecting their city’s food supply. For high school, it might be knowledge of how the country’s political system.
  • And last, it teaches students that they can make a difference. Instead of just learning about problems in the world, EFS asks teachers and students to come up with solutions for these problems. Instead of just tallying the number of cars idling in the parking lot, it asks students to put up signs reminding drivers to turn their cars off when not in use. Instead of just discussing the number of homeless people on the street, it asks classrooms to raise money for local homeless shelters.

Now I know that is a lot of information. But hopefully it gives you a slightly better understanding of Education for Sustainability. The Sustainable Schools Project has TONS of great resources, including some curricular examples, if you want to read more.

And while all this is really exciting, I know there are lots of teachers who will say “But my district requires me to teach exactly what is in our teacher manuals.” Have no fear. As a teacher from just such a district, I’ll talk next time about how I am going to implement these huge and amazing ideas into my classroom – one tiny, manageable step at a time.

Education for Sustainability: a basic primer

Earlier this month, I was privileged to be sent by my school district to the Summer Institute on Education for Sustainability, held at Shelburne Farms in Burlington, VT. It was a beautiful site, overlooking Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains:

lake champlain shelburne VT

When I taught garden and nutrition education with a farm-to-school organization in Chicago, I had heard of Shelburne Farms and the awesome farm-to-school programs they had helped implement at schools throughout Vermont. But actually attending a teacher training institute out there seemed way out of my league! I mean, the description of the course sounded like some sort of hippie-teacher-mecca:

Spend four rich days with colleagues around the country at an informative and restorative institute created to provide an opportunity for participants to deepen their understanding of Education for Sustainability. Educators have the opportunity to develop connections between curriculum and community, work and dialogue together, and reflect in an inspiring setting that models sustainability and systems-thinking.

Sounds amazing, and way out of my league! When would I have the time, and the money, to go to something like that? But fast forward several years, and I found myself an eager participant of the week-long course, due to a generous grant from my district. I learned so much, and got to talk with some amazing teachers about Education for Sustainability. My biggest question going in was “What is Education for Sustainability? And how will I explain it to other teachers and administrators at my school when I return?”

After four days of conversations, lectures, and research at the Institute, I am no expert on this complicated topic. But I do feel more confident in my ability to both explain what it means to me, and implement it in my classroom. So here on this blog I’ll attempt to share some of my discoveries!

Education for Sustainability

First off, a definition of “sustainability.” There are a million different ways to define this word, depending on the context and who is doing the defining. But here is a generic explanation.

sustainability: the ability to meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

Some easy-to-understand examples of sustainable activities could be…

  • replanting three trees for every tree you chop down
  • using solar energy (since there is a limitless supply of sun)
  • building rain gardens to help filter water before it reaches the groundwater supply (rather than using lots of resources to send it through a water treatment plant)

Basically, you can do those things forever (or close to it) without damaging the environment or human communities. The problem is that most of the systems in our society are not set up to be sustainable. Think about all the oil we use for energy. We are pulling it out of the ground and it won’t get replenished for millions of years. So future generations won’t be able to use it. And meanwhile, it’s polluting the air and contributing to climate change in a big way. Making it worse for future generations. It is decidedly not sustainable.

So that’s one example to help understand sustainability. Probably a lot of what we already teach and promote in classrooms can be considered sustainable — recycling, turning off the lights, planting a garden. These are all sustainable activities, and it’s very important to teach them. But Education for Sustainability is bigger than these little actions. These little actions only look at what an individual can do to make a tiny dent in a system that is already set up to fail. No matter how many classrooms recycle their paper products, businesses and factories are still using way more paper than our forests can produce, so even if all the elementary school classrooms learn to recycle, it won’t make a difference in the number of trees we need to cut down.

But before I get all doomsday about the environment — which happens in these conversations way too quickly, discouraging kids and teachers from feeling empowered to do anything about it — I want to point out that education for sustainability isn’t just teaching recycling. It isn’t just teaching families to drive less. It’s teaching students to look at the world in a different way. It’s teaching students that it is everyone’s responsibility to improve the quality of life for all. And it’s helping them understand how they can do it, in a developmentally appropriate way.

Since most of the systems in our society are decidedly not sustainable, it’s our job as teachers to help students understand (a) what the systems are; (b) how they are not sustainable; and (c) what we can do to make them sustainable.

Now since this is a lot to think about already, I am going to stop here for the day and just share one more thing. We were asked to come up with our own definition of sustainability education. While this isn’t perfect, it’s the best I could develop after a week at the Institute. I know it will evolve over time, but here it is for now:

sustainability education: building on children’s natural sense of wonder to integrate scientific, social and economic thinking and knowledge, with the goal of creating students who are active citizens of their classroom, community and world

That’s a lot of words, and I will revisit this definition next time, to help break it down a bit! For now, I leave you with this quote which perfectly sums up the importance of Education for Sustainability.

inherit the earth quote