ERIC Identifier: ED433194 Publication Date: 1998-12-00
Author: Haury, David L. Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Education for Environmental Sustainability. ERIC Digest.
Early in the final decade of the 20th century, the largest group of world
leaders ever to assemble defined what may be education's greatest challenge and
responsibility: to help citizens of the world prepare for a future of
sustainable development (Sitarz, 1993). Sustainable development has been defined
over the years in a variety of ways, but Jacobs (1993) has suggested that all
definitions have a core meaning characterized by three elements: (a)
consideration of environmental issues and objectives interdependently with
economic issues and objectives; (b) a commitment to social equity and the fair
distribution of environmental benefits and costs, both geographically and across
human generations; and (c) an enlarged view of "development" that extends beyond
simple measures of "growth" to include qualitative improvements in daily life.
The educational challenges for sustainable societies are great for several
reasons: (a) the global sustainability challenge is unprecedented in both
magnitude and complexity, (b) there is no history of societies willingly and
deliberately taking steps to institutionalize restraints and change individual
and collective behaviors to achieve greater sustainability, and (c) a
constructive educational response must include a comprehensive, coordinated
attempt to redefine the human role in nature and reexamine many assumptions,
values, and actions we have long taken for granted (Orr, 1992). We must "prepare
each student to lead a sustainable lifestyle" and "place ecosystems concepts at
the intellectual center of all disciplines." (Disinger, 1993).
In the United States, the President has responded to the challenge by
creating the President's Council on Sustainable Development. (online at
http://www. whitehouse.gov/PCSD/) The Council, in turn, convened a National
Forum on Partnerships Supporting Education about the Environment, and produced a
report, "Education for sustainability: An agenda for action" (1996) (available
online at http://www.gcrio.org/edu/pcsd/toc.html). In outlining an array of
strategic actions and initiatives promoting education for sustainability, the
report focuses on six themes:
1. Lifelong learning within both formal and nonformal educational settings.
2. Interdisciplinary approaches that provide themes to integrate content and
issues across disciplines and curricula.
3. Systems thinking as a context for developing skills in problem solving,
conflict resolution, consensus building, information management, interpersonal
expression, and critical and creative thinking.
4. Partnerships between educational institutions and the broader community.
5. Multicultural perspectives of sustainability and approaches to problem
6. Empowerment of individuals and groups for responsible action as citizens
These themes reflect an acknowledgment that education about the environment
and sustainability is interdisciplinary in nature, must allow for multiple
perspectives, depends on collaboration across agencies and groups, and presumes
a lifelong path of learning that extends through all levels of formal education
into a variety of nonformal settings. The task, simply put, is to transform
prevailing mindsets to recognize the long-term limits that nature imposes and
the need to "nurture, rather than jeopardize, the ecological systems" that
support our activities (Smith, 1992, p. 90).
WHAT IS TO BE LEARNED?
Just as there is a wide range of
definitions for sustainable development, there is great diversity in the
characterizations of education for sustainability. One starting place in
considering the content of education for sustainability is to examine the
relationship with environmental education. The North American Association for
Environmental Education (NAAEE) has developed a set of guidelines for
environmental education, "Excellence in Environmental Education - Guidelines for
Learning (K-12)" (1998). The Guidelines provide a conceptual framework for
environmental education, and they are organized around themes that are well
aligned with the ideas shaping education for sustainability. Indeed, some have
suggested that education for sustainability has become the new focus and
justification for environmental education (Tilbury, 1995; 1997).
The organizing themes for the NAAEE guidelines are as follows:
*Questioning and analysis skills.
*Knowledge of environmental processes and systems.
*Skills for understanding and addressing environmental issues.
*Personal and civic responsibility.
These themes clearly complement the six themes of "Education for
Sustainability," and they reflect a connectedness among natural systems, human
actions, and the need for individuals and groups to analyze issues, make
decisions, and take actions that support sustainable ecosystems. It is also
clear from these two sets of themes that teaching for sustainability cannot be
relegated to a single course or subject area; the themes of education for
sustainability must come to permeate all subject areas at all educational levels
Neal (1995) has suggested a four-component framework for teaching about
sustainable development: (a) people, (b) environment, (c) economics, and (d)
technology. The component focusing on people would consider such matters as
human populations, health care, literacy, equity, and urbanization. The
environment component would foster awareness of issues related to water
supplies, waste disposal, energy use and pollution, farming practices, and
habitat preservation. Matters related to trade, expenditures on defense,
wasteful consumption, poverty, and access to resources would be considered in
the economics component, and the technology component would focus on control of
emissions, fossil fuels, transportation, and industrial processes.
Rather than prescribe the content for sustainability education, Tilbury
(1995) has suggested combining approaches that build on past practices but lead
to an outcomes-oriented futures perspective. She characterizes traditional
environmental education as being "about" the environment; students gain
awareness, knowledge, and understanding of human-environment interactions,
usually within the context of a science, social studies, or geography class.
Another common approach is education "in" the environment where experiential
learning fosters both awareness and concern for the environment. To these
components, Tilbury would add education "for" the environment that would promote
"a sense of "responsibility" and "active" pupil participation" in resolving
environmental problems" (p. 207).
As Sitarz (1998) has suggested, education for sustainability is not a new
course of study or new content, but rather "it involves an understanding of how
each subject relates to environmental, economic, and social issues (p. 202).
Developing the content of this new educational dimension will require "educators
at all levels[to] reach beyond school walls to involve parents, industry,
communities, and government in the educational process" (p. 200).
One way to begin the process is to create environmentally safe and healthy
school buildings and grounds where daily routines and facilities reflect
attention to environmentally sound practices. The "Blueprint for a Green School"
(Chase, 1995) is a comprehensive guidebook that provides background information,
activities, and resources for creating environmentally sound learning
CHALLENGE TO COMMUNITIES
Though sustainable development is
a national and international issue, it becomes locally defined through actions
and decisions within cities, neighborhoods, and communities. It is clear from
the nature and magnitude of the challenge that providing education for
sustainability will require communities to view schools as components within the
educational system, not the sole agents responsible for education. Indeed,
education for sustainability will not be sustained unless communities embrace
the concept and systematically build sustainable patterns of living where the
local economy, policies, services, resource consumption, and land-use
regulations meet the needs of residents while preserving the environment's
ability to support the desired standards of living into the future. Roseland
(1998) has developed a practical handbook for communities ready to take the
challenge, and the Izaak Walton League of America has produced several
community-oriented workshop guides on sustainability, including, "Monitoring
Community Sustainability" (1998). This and other curriculum materials associated
with the League's "Sustainability Education Project" are described online [see
http://www.iwla.org/sep/]. One possible community education strategy would be to
involve school students in the collection and reporting of data related to
environmental indicators. "Community Sustainability," a mini-curriculum produced
by the Izaak Walton League for grades 9-12 (Hren & Hren, 1996), includes
guidelines for conducting a community sustainability monitoring project.
Another curriculum guide produced by Zero Population Growth (Wasserman, 1996)
for middle-school students includes activities that lead to development of a
"Quality of Life Index." Developing an Index with ten community indicators is
one of the culminating activities after students have examined general
principles relating to population dynamics, use of natural resources, and global
The supplementary curriculum materials described here represent modest moves
towards engaging students in local actions that promote community
sustainability. The long-term goals of education for sustainability will be
realized, however, only when communities build on these efforts and involve
schools in comprehensive plans to create sustainable communities. More resources
supporting such efforts are available through the following World Wide Web
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