The seminal book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, published in 1962, triggered the environmental movement, but in recent years, sustainability and sustainable development have become catch-all phrases.

We have witnessed a groundswell in sustainability consciousness that has gradually encompassed economic development, environmental limits and social developmental indicators, including access to education.

Of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out by the UN, the fourth, which focuses on education, can be seen as a force multiplier. It acts as a driver and catalyst of all key development parameters: health and well-being, meaningful livelihoods, economic security and the full development of human potential.

Our vision for education

School education must continuously respond to the changing needs of society. Schools should become spaces that develop individual capabilities and further the idea of democracy and sensitivity to social and ecological responsibilities.

Learning should ideally cover the following:

  • Inter-related disciplines: Nature is inherently whole and cannot be broken down into building blocks. Since knowledge is the mental representation of nature, it cannot be boxed into subjects or chapters. A framework of broad, entwined disciplines, including sciences, social sciences and mathematics, needs to be put together.
  • Physical and vocational skills: This covers the physical development and skills related to working with your hands.
  • Intellectual skills: Creative thinking, critical thinking and abilities such as innovation and risk-taking should feature.
  • Philosophy: Learning should include studying different value systems, beliefs and attitudes.

Such a framework provides guiding principles without being prescriptive so that the student, parent, teacher, school and community can then adapt this to suit the learner’s inclination and ability. Within this guiding structure, the student sets a pace for learning.

Providing a learning environment

To create the right experiences for learning a school needs:

  • A hard environment: the classroom, playgrounds, library, laboratory, learning tools, toilets, cafeteria and other physical infrastructure.
  • A soft environment: the value system of the school such as caring for children and feeling responsible for the holistic progress of every child.

Together, the hard and soft environments provide a non-intimidating space for the child to learn. Schools need to identify and eradicate every physical, mental and emotional threat that could stifle learning.

The right learning environment is contextual to the learner and their community. For instance, a blind child needs non-visual learning tools, while hunger is a physical threat detrimental to learning in poor communities. The local community has a responsibility to create an environment of support as schools invest in teaching, infrastructure, assessment systems and a culture centered on the needs of the learner.

Creating the right experiences

Children learn all the time and everywhere. A learner’s mental status determines what they are ready for; their background determines what their preferred learning style might be. To achieve the desired level of learning, the teacher must follow a process to create the right experience:

  • Understand the learner’s mental status: New knowledge is built on old knowledge. A teacher cannot build knowledge of integers if the learner has no concept of quantity, for example. Understanding the learner’s knowledge base is important. Assessment tools need to measure whether the learner has synthesized new knowledge with existing constructs and can apply this knowledge further.
  • Understand the learner’s context: This refers to the mental processes that decide how a learner interprets data and builds knowledge, as these determine how the learner will respond to different learning styles. Some children learn best when doing things with their own bodies, for example, while others learn better in peer groups. Understanding a learner’s background – their history and family situation – will help the teacher to define the desired learning outcome.
  • Create the right experience: The right experience brings the learner closer to gaining the education that is sought through a process of inquiry and discovery. The teacher and the student are equal partners in creating this experience. Additionally, the teacher acts as a guide to steer the learner in the desired direction.

Sustainability in education

SDG clause 4.7 refers to imparting education that ensures a sound understanding of sustainable development and related concepts. Given that sustainability will be one of the defining challenges of the 21st Century, making its importance as axiomatic to education as ‘technology learning’ was in the 20th Century.

Our vast experience in engaging with issues in education and our more recent involvement in ecology has led us to realize that the problem of sustainable development is as much epistemic and cognitive than it is moral.

Sustainability is an epistemic problem because what we know about it is not just grossly inadequate, but also often, even directionally, incorrect.

Sustainability is inherently trans-disciplinary at the points where the disciplines of ecology, biology, economics, complexity science, systems theory, behavioral sciences and applied engineering interplay in ever changing configurations. Our educational training does not prepare us to understand this well enough.

The current educational paradigm of linear, Cartesian thinking cannot help us understand the non-linear nature of feedback loops and cause-and-effect chains in natural ecosystems that typically cascade across time and space. Climate science is a good example of this syndrome.

Another example is our financial systems, which fail to value services provided by natural ecosystems. Even when they attempt to do so, they adopt an instrumental approach and use mechanistic valuation tools such as cost-benefit analysis and marginal utility value. A well-known Nature paper from 1997 put the estimated value of ecosystem services at $33 trillion, twice the global GDP in that year. While this seems pragmatic and reasonable, a normative approach would hesitate to put a value to an ecosystem service like pollination because there are no known alternate methods to make plants reproduce.

Sustainability literacy is therefore comprised of many different things coming together. Some cognitive approaches and tools for understanding complex issues include:

  • The ability to understand the organizing principles of ‘living ecosystems’ and apply them to human communities (e.g. interdependence, flexibility, resilience, cyclical patterns).
  • The concepts of stocks, flows, feedback loops, buffers and delays as applied to the ecological and social spaces that we live in.
  • The trade-offs between efficiency, productivity, resilience, and stability.

We have spoken about the intellectual and cognitive deficit in our meagre sustainability education, but what about the moral and psychological dimensions? In our minds, there is little doubt that the ethical and the cognitive must come together if we are to make some progress.

The ethical dimension is rooted in a holistic, integrated approach to everything around us – a valuable illustration of which is the ‘seventh generation outlook’ shared by many indigenous cultures. The spirit of this approach can be summarized in two sentences: “Tread softly on the earth so that future generations may live. Act only if you are sure that at least up to seven generations hence will not be affected by your actions.”

Fritjof Capra, an ardent votary of integrative thinking, characterizes the latter by contrasting it with our current mode of self-assertive thinking.

Image: Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life

David W Orr, a pioneer of sustainability education, in his classic address, ‘What is Education for?’ remarked that all education is environmental education. In saying this, he implied that true education consists of being able to see the whole.

The following extract from his speech presents what we have been deprived of through education and therefore, what we must strive to reclaim: ”A myth of higher education is that we can adequately restore that which we have dismantled. In the modern curriculum, we have fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines and subdisciplines. As a result, after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, most students graduate without any broad, integrated sense of the unity of things.

“The consequences for their personhood and for the planet are large. For example, we routinely produce economists who lack the most rudimentary knowledge of ecology (…) We add the price of the sale of a bushel of wheat to GDP while forgetting to subtract the three bushels of topsoil lost in its production. As a result of incomplete education, we've fooled ourselves into thinking that we are much richer than we are.”

A good education is not just about school infrastructure or preparatory spaces for clearing competitive exams. Good education integrates the cognitive, the emotional and the ethical for individual development in its truest sense. It influences the trajectory of an individual’s actions for decades and, in a collective sense, determines the course of human society itself. In other words, progress with the rest of the SDGs critically depends on advancing SDG 4.