A whole-school approach to learning for sustainability: how to get started

Image: Elf-Moondance / Pixabay.com

The EU’s ambitious goal of Europe becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 requires action from the education and training sector. Whole-school approaches to sustainability lie at the heart of effective learning for sustainability. This article will examine useful resources and practical ideas for embracing whole-school sustainability.

Entrenching sustainability in your school

A whole-school approach to sustainability involves integrating environmental sustainability learning across the institution. According to the Commission’s paper A whole-school approach to learning for environmental sustainability, this kind of approach can help students develop sustainable mindsets. This means that by entrenching sustainability in governance, teaching and learning frameworks, and campus and facilities management, schools can provide learners with consistent opportunities to live what they learn.  

Whole School approach to learning for sustainability

A whole-school approach to sustainability. Source: UNESCO, 2016

Some recent Erasmus+ projects show what whole-school approaches look like in practice. In both the Ecological, what else? and ECORoad projects, participants improved ecological standards and practices by developing their schools’ culture through workshops and staff and student exchanges.

However, creating spaces and opportunities to learn for sustainability is no easy feat. To initiate change in your school, you need to bear in mind some key factors, especially:

  1. developing an inclusive whole-school plan by engaging all players – students, staff, parents, partners, and community stakeholders,
  2. drafting a future-oriented perspective to increase the impact of your plan and student motivation,
  3. shifting from a focus on environmental education to learning for sustainability, as the latter regards learners as active and engaged agents of change.

Engaging students in the whole-school approach to sustainability

The whole-school approach to sustainability should also consider creating opportunities for student engagement in real-life scenarios. Food is one key area where schools can effectively transform the way they operate and implement sustainable solutions across the board.

Whole School approach to learning for sustainability

A whole-school approach to sustainability: food (Tilbury, 2019). Source: Input paper: A whole-school approach to learning for environmental sustainability

For example, when students grow their own food in school gardens, schools can create awareness by labelling food options on the canteen menu and inform students about the environmental impact of their choices. In order to offer products that are always in season, the school management can partner up with suppliers and canteen staff to source food locally and thus lower their carbon footprint.

Leftovers can be redistributed to those in need with the help of local charities. Teachers can highlight food-related sustainability issues through the curriculum and students can discuss the issue at home. Local NGOs could ultimately be brought into the picture to start environmentally sustainable projects such as creating a bee hotel to support local bee populations.

Ideas for integrating sustainability into your classroom

Below, you can find some useful resources with practical tips and tools for teaching sustainability.

These classroom projects have project plans addressing the climate crisis and advice for teaching about climate change and sustainability in the classroom.

In her article, Makers of the future: creating sustainability together, Professor Maija Aksela (University of Helsinki) talks about several successful activities aimed at empowering young citizens around complex environmental challenges.

Dr Pramod Kumar Sharma highlights how we should focus on action rather than awareness-raising through the Eco-Schools program. In this webinar about environmental literacy, he also proposes a roadmap for assessing students’ progress, along with useful tools to make learning activities more effective.

More examples of how teachers and schools approached sustainability can be found in this article about eco-friendly schools for a brighter future.