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December 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 4

Education for Sustainability

To bring about a secure future, students need to be fully engaged in creating a better world.

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What challenges will today's students face in the 21st century? Whenever I pose this question in a workshop, teachers generate a grim litany of global woes: widespread hunger, persistent poverty, environmental degradation, climate change, social instability, and threats of war and terrorism.
The next question—How are we preparing our students to create a more just, humane, and secure world?—typically gets fewer responses. As we probe this question, teachers give voice to real concerns affecting their practice: The world's problems are overwhelming; students try to distance themselves from painful realities; teachers can't think of examples of positive changes and don't have the time or support to research them. And with all the other pressures and mandates, why expend the energy or risk the controversy? In the end, the conversation comes back to a central theme: In spite of the obstacles, educators want guidance for helping their students shape a positive future.
A growing global movement is providing guidance for educators and a hopeful vision for the future. The movement is led by a groundswell of scientists, economists, business leaders, educators, policymakers, and citizens who are offering an intelligent response to the complex challenges threatening the earth's life support systems (Wackernagel et al., 2002). The movement—and the science behind it—is called sustainability.
The concept of sustainability rose to prominence with the 1987 publication of Our Common Future, a landmark report by the World Commission on Environment and Development. Outlining a systemic approach to development that emphasizes the relationship among ecological, economic, and social stability, the report called for a major international effort to improve human well-being while maintaining the long-term viability of the environment.
Since 1987, sustainable development has been the focus of major United Nations conferences, including the 1993 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. In the United States, a national panel produced Education for Sustainability: An Agenda for Action (Hulbert, Schaefer, Wacey, & Wheeler, 1997). The concept of sustainability drives an increasing number of community-based initiatives that focus on reducing sprawl, redeveloping urban areas, using renewable energy, and encouraging environmentally friendly businesses.
The goal of sustainable development is to increase human well-being while reducing negative human impact on the environment. The sustainability movement also seeks to democratize institutions, eliminate the exploitation of people and the environment, and achieve a more equitable distribution of resources and power.

A Vision of Citizenship

Sustainability education equips students to become informed, caring, and effective citizens. Do these goals sound familiar? They should. Creating effective citizens is a core mission of schooling. What does sustainability education offer that's different? And why bother introducing another topic into the overcrowded curriculum?
In fact, sustainability education does not add more content, nor is it a covert strategy to repackage environmentalism. Rather, sustainability education is a rigorous approach to lifelong learning that integrates academic, social, emotional, and civic competencies to ensure a prosperous and peaceful world for future generations (Wheeler & Bijur, 2000). Sustainability education envisions citizens not only as voting and obeying the law, but also as actively contributing to bringing about a sustainable world.
To develop this vision of citizenship, sustainability education infuses curriculum and instruction with concepts that link social, economic, and ecological systems; apply technology to solve, not create, problems; foster respect for all people; and nurture creativity, compassion, and cooperation. School facilities and designs reflect the values of sustainability through such practices as reducing waste and using energy efficiently.
Sustainability education seeks to answer the question, What kind of education do we need to create the future we want?

Connecting to Standards

Education for sustainability offers a way to connect standards across content areas, resulting in an integrated curriculum with opportunities for inquiry and authentic applications. Standards provide tools for outlining the important questions that students need to answer about their lives, communities, and futures.
Science and social studies courses already address several sustainability topics, such as ecosystems and global development. The concept of sustainability, however, spans all disciplines. In language arts, for example, students can hone crucial communication skills while using literature and writing to explore ethics and values. In math, students can use computational skills to analyze primary-source data as they address real-world issues. Sustainability education emphasizes higher-order thinking, decision making, collaboration, problem solving, and interpersonal communication—skills that students need in all subjects (Federico, Cloud, Byrne, & Wheeler, 2003; McKeown, 2002). Teachers across the curriculum can use sustainability in an integrative context, as the following examples suggest.

How Can We Improve Our Community?

In Ypsilanti, Michigan, a group of 6th graders worked with landscape architects to develop plans for a piece of blighted city land. Students mapped the area, inventoried plants, tested the soil, and researched native plants that could thrive on the site. To gain social and cultural perspective on the region, students interviewed local elders and created a city timeline using historic maps and archives. After developing their site models and preparing a budget, students presented their recommendations to city planners and enlisted the community to beautify the site during the annual City Pride Day. Through these activities, students integrated local history, botany, ecosystems, design, and math. They also developed skills in communication, inquiry, and problem solving.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, a group of preschoolers and their parents turned a flood-prone park into a “wet meadow” that helps to clean storm water before it is discharged into the river. Students' curiosity about the soggy park turned into a community effort that gained the support of residents, local officials, and funders. With the help of the larger community, the young students interviewed residents about the park's condition, learned about the links between plants and water quality, and conducted a door-to-door education campaign about their efforts. The project has expanded to involve older students who monitor water quality as part of a for-credit service learning project.

How Do Personal Choices Affect Others?

In Ypsilanti, Michigan, a group of fashion-conscious 8th graders asked, What are the social and environmental impacts of the sport shoes we buy? Students surveyed their peers to find out what influenced their purchasing decisions and what they knew about their shoes. From this investigation, students generated a list of questions about how shoes are made, who makes them, and where they go “when they die.”
To examine the environmental impact of production, students created a timeline of a shoe's “life story” from production through disposal (see fig. 1). The timeline extended 200 million years into the past—the origins of the oil in the vinyl—and thousands of years into the future, when plastic will break down in a landfill. This perspective spurred students to research new methods for reducing waste by recycling sport shoes into playground surfaces and carpet padding.

Figure 1. A Shoe's Life Story

To investigate the social implications of shoe production, students researched wages and working conditions in factories in China and Vietnam and compared them with corporate profits per shoe and compensation for chief executive officers. Through a role-playing activity, students explored the relationship among globalization, capital mobility, and labor rights. Students also evaluated the effectiveness of campus boycotts of sweatshop apparel, codes of conduct for factories, and workers' rights movements. As a final application for their research, students developed social and environmental criteria for purchasing shoes and created educational materials to distribute to their peers.

Beyond a Single Classroom

When fully implemented, sustainability education goes beyond individual classroom lessons to encompass all aspects of education. In the United States and abroad, public schools, universities, nonprofit organizations, funders, and governmental agencies are developing sustainability-based curriculums, software, and professional development programs, as well as “green” construction and facilities projects.
The Cobb County, Georgia, Public Schools, for example, collaborated with the Center for a Sustainable Future (http://csf.concord.org/esf) in Shelburne, Vermont, to develop standards-based curriculums and professional development around five key themes: thinking about the future, ecological economics, sustainable communities, global issues, and stewardship of natural resources. Funded through a U.S. Department of Education Technology Challenge Grant, the five-year project also produced three software programs on developing scenarios, designing sustainable communities, and measuring the impact of food, energy, and transportation choices on the environment.
In southeast Michigan, the Washtenaw County government, with additional support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has funded professional development and school-community partnerships that have engaged more than 1,000 students in hands-on learning about watersheds, land use, organic gardening, and local re-development. This yearlong sustainability education initiative demonstrated positive trends in achieving state education goals (Wefel, 2003). The Washtenaw County government continues to fund professional development of teachers and school-community partnerships as part of its own sustainability initiatives.
Colleges and universities are increasingly offering courses related to sustainable development and shifting to sustainable campus operations, such as food composting and using renewable energy. At Eastern Michigan University, for example, the School of Education offers graduate courses on teaching sustainability and ecological economics. By learning about cutting-edge economic and scientific theories that shape business and international policy, teachers will be able to integrate these concepts into their teaching and develop strategies to involve students in their communities.
In New York City, the Sustainability Education Center (www.sustainabilityed.org) works with the city's public schools to provide professional development on sustainability. Through a new high school course, Business Education and Entrepreneurship for the 21st Century, students learn how to develop successful ventures that meet the “triple bottom line” of financial, social, and ecological well-being. The Center's other programs, such as From World Hunger to Sustainable Food Systems, provide standards-based curriculums and after-school programs to involve students in hands-on learning about agriculture, community gardening, and nutrition. And in nearby New Jersey, the nonprofit organization Global Learning (www.globallearningnj.org) has been instrumental in establishing a statewide schools network for maintaining sustainable school facilities and integrating sustainable development into the curriculum.

The Future of Sustainability Education

Sustainability education integrates and supports many recognized education goals, yet the term sustainability does not appear explicitly in any state standards, with the notable exception of Vermont's. Sustainability education has evolved as a largely decentralized movement, without a professional organization, national standards, or recognized journals. But influential organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of the sustainability concept.
At the international level, the United Nations has declared 2005–2015 the Decade of Education for Sustainability, a move that will bring resources and attention to the field. Already, the United Nations provides resources for teachers and students on global issues (www.un.org/cyberschoolbus), and the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (2002) has developed an extensive online professional development program called Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future.
In the United States, the National Council for Science and the Environment (2003) recently released a report that presented a national agenda addressing five crucial areas: identifying sustainability needs and practices, developing standards and programs, teaching sustainability concepts, communicating the issue to the public, and fostering business leadership of sustainable practices. Eight hundred scientists, educators, and decision makers presented the report to the U.S. Congress in June of 2003.
Sustainability education infuses a sense of purpose and relevance across disciplines while providing a rigorous response to academic mandates. In doing so, sustainability education can improve teaching and learning while preparing students for the biggest test of all: life.

Federico, C. M., Cloud, J. P., Byrne, J., & Wheeler, J. (2003). Kindergarten through 12th grade education for sustainability. Environmental Law Reporter, 33, 10117–10131. Washington, DC: Environmental Law Institute. Available:www.sustainabilityed.org/K–12%20Chapter_ELR.pdf

Hulbert, S., Schaefer, M., Wacey, C., & Wheeler, K. (1997). Education for sustainability: An agenda for action. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available: www.gcrio.org/edu/pcsd/toc.html

McKeown, R. (2002). Education for sustainable development toolkit. Knoxville, TN: Energy, Environment, and Resources Center, University of Tennessee. Available: www.esdtoolkit.org

National Council for Science and the Environment. (2003). Education for a sustainable and secure future. Washington, DC: Author. Available:www.ncseonline.org/NCSEconference/2003conference/2003report.pdf

United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (2002). Teaching and learning for a sustainable future. Paris: Author. Available: www.unesco.org/education/tlsf

Wackernagel, M., Schulz, N., Deumling, D., Callegas Linares, A., Jenkins, M., Kapos, V., Monfreda, C., Loh, J., Myers, N., Norgaard, R., & Randers, J. (2002). Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(14), 9266–9271.

Wefel, A. (2003). Lessons from a sustainability education program. Unpublished master's thesis, University of Michigan.

Wheeler, K. A., & Bijur, A. P. (Eds.). (2000). Education for a sustainable future: A paradigm of hope for the 21st century. New York: Kluwer Academic.

World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our common future. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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