As education innovates and keeps up with changes in industry and climate, sustainability education in mainstream curricula has already gained traction in many parts of the world. Most common forms of sustainability programmes however still only graze the surface of a robust environmental education that accurately informs students on the core issues within the climate conversation, and more importantly, empowers them to exact long-term and far-reaching change. In the emerging trends of teaching sustainability education around the world, beginning with eco-literacy and geographical knowledge may be the most common and easy to enact; however, we should look deeper in implementing core sustainability curricula that build up vital 21st century competencies in students via climate-based project work and an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach to the climate conversation.
In a report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), three key skillsets were identified to be essential for green jobs: first, basic sustainability literacy, characterised by soft skills, awareness of crucial climate issues, and action competence; second, occupation-specific science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills; third, leadership and management skills for green transitions and sustaining green efforts. Eco-literacy programmes generally equip students with the first type of skillsets, providing general knowledge on key sustainability issues and concerns, inculcating habits and behaviours that promote green living, and encouraging student initiatives that contribute to sustainability solutions. It is not uncommon to see recycling and zero-waste literacy integrated in curricula worldwide, including modules on composting and waste management. Students also participate in food drives, beach clean-ups, tree-planting initiatives, fund-raising, and green projects such as setting up solar panels in communities. As common as such initiatives are however, they are often not embedded in core curricula, and are mostly categorised as co-curricular activities. For sustainability education to make a deeper and lasting impact on students, extensive climate-based project work needs to be linked up to subject competencies and embedded in core curricula.
Key to translating students’ theoretical knowledge about sustainability issues into action is to encourage climate action projects, which according to education experts could be a mainstay in every school by 2025. Schools from every country in every socio-economic environment can imagine practical solutions to climate-based issues, with climate action projects in schools bringing them to life. Project-based work ensures students feel part of climate solutions, develop essential civic action skills to participate in public dialogue, and rally community to drive change. They also direct students to think critically about climate-related problems close to their own experience, and creatively implement practical solutions based on classroom knowledge, such as how a middle school class in Jersey, USA successfully used green architecture to stop flooding in their school building. Problem-solving skills, effective communication, leadership, and teamwork are emphasised when students engage in climate action projects, all core skills necessary to participate and thrive in a green economy.
Vital to an empowering and impactful sustainability education curriculum is the understanding that the climate change conversation is a complex, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary problem, and that its solutions can be found in every department and discipline. As mentioned in the ADB’s report on essential skills for green jobs, having occupation-specific STEM education forms one of the three core skillsets necessary for participation in a green economy. STEM education and technological innovation are undoubtedly essential for just transitions to a sustainable world. However, robust sustainability education must go beyond vocational training to equip students with a holistic understanding of complex and interconnected problems, and the soft skills and leadership to enact change.
For students to be equipped for industry challenges, there needs to be greater connectivity between bio-geographic knowledge taught in STEM subjects, with humanities subjects such as social studies for students to understand avenues where they can enact change, and how to do it. In line with trends pivoting from a STEM education to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) education, the importance of understanding sustainability issues through an arts and humanities lens is emphasised. In his talk ‘Why Must We More Creatively Imagine Our Climate Futures?’ Professor Terry Harpold of the University of Florida explains how our ancestors, emerging out of the last ice age and into a new period of warming global temperatures, connected myth to new environmental experiences to construct meaning. He argues, “We must begin to create new images, and new stories as the world changes so that we will remember what we have lost. And so, we may discover what we can find, again…Art and storytelling are the most resilient and the most enduring technologies of humanity.” As eco-fiction gains prominence in recent decades, most recently with Richard Powers’ The Overstory obtaining the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, we are brought new perspectives of the lived and natural environment, and in the interconnected role we all have in creating a new future for humanity. While sustainability discourse in humanities subjects is already prevalent in higher education, much is still left to be done to introduce this into pre-tertiary core curricula, and to promote interdisciplinary dialogue about sustainability across departments and disciplines at all levels.
Finally, to teach sustainability education is to cultivate in students key 21st-century competencies. As charted in the OECD Learning Compass 2030 and other ministry directives, 21st century competencies necessary for students to thrive include self-awareness and regulation, social awareness, critical and inventive thinking, self-directed learning, civic literacy, global awareness, communicative and collaborative skills, social and emotional regulation skills, and digital literacy to become concerned and active global citizens. Many trends and tenets in sustainability education as reflected above cultivate such competencies in students. Sustainability and climate change, as a prevailing and complex problem of our times, will challenge generations to understand climate problems from all perspectives and see solutions in every aspect of society as well. As a global problem requiring global cooperation, it will push students to understand how developments in one part of the world can impact another and cultivate skills of negotiation and collaboration in students to create solutions that transcends borders. Digital and technological literacy is key to ensuring future generations have the tools and knowledge to pivot vital infrastructure towards a green economy. And above all, sustainability education can inspire students to take charge of their own learning, invest creatively in futures that they wish to live in, and become empowered as changemakers.
As we move ever closer to 2030 and to the deadline for meeting the United Nation’s ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, more nations and communities are taking up the call to educate citizens on climate change and sustainability imperatives. As governments welcome shifts to a green economy, re-educating and re-skilling their workforce fit for green jobs become a priority. In this critical decade for change, much can be done to prepare students for a just and sustainable future, while educating them to participate in more equitable and prosperous economies. We only need to adopt these changes fast enough.
Hillary Loh is an Executive at The HEAD Foundation, working on education projects and research.
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.