Learning for sustainability: the need to move beyond events and special days!

Image: Eco-Schools England

Our current model of environmental education focuses more on awareness-raising than action. We focus more on the logistics of an activity than its learning outcomes. Dr Pramod Kumar Sharma of the Foundation for Environmental Education relates some experiences that made him critically reflect on the discipline and how it is taught.

Tree-planting and cleanup drives: what is it all for? 

In schools, environmental action is very commonly in terms of a call to observe special days or events, in the hope of raising children’s environmental consciousness. But its impact is far from clear. 

A colleague of mine engaged students in greening the campus and, in a session before the planting activity, asked them: why do we plant trees? While many gave the desired responses, one of them replied, ‘To take pictures’! 

On another occasion, one of the very active state schools we were visiting had been submitting a well-documented report with photos of its activities every year. While I was scanning through the documentation, I noticed that the annual planting activity had been done at the same site for the last seven to eight years. When I asked what happened to the saplings planted, the school head replied, ‘They die.’ To use an old joke from the medical profession: the operation was successful, but the patient died. 

Professor Paul Pace, my colleague from Malta, also shared an anecdote of a school that prided itself on doing cleanup activities on a beach a couple of times a year, but did not critically examine whether they were making an impact or what their goal was: doing cleanup drives, or teaching behaviours that help keep beaches clean? 

What this shows is that, as educators, we need to define our educational goals explicitly. Learning cannot be a side effect of environmental education but the desired outcome.  

Policy and leadership recommendations 

More investment is needed in the educational aspect of environmental education, specifically to tackle the following challenges: 

  1. Lacking clear curricular goals and standards in most education systems, environmental education is still an add-on or one of the many prescribed activities that schools can take up. This also means that the discipline is not universal, and teachers are not being trained or prepared to teach it.   
  2. The top-down and peer pressure to show environmental consciousness leads to most activities being symbolic. Learners are not engaged meaningfully, nor asked to think critically in terms of: Why I am participating in an activity or action? What are my goals? How should I continue to engage both at a personal level and as an active citizen? 
  3. The subject-driven education system is a barrier to environmental education, which requires a multi- or interdisciplinary approach to projects, classes spread over weeks and months, and collaboration among stakeholders in a whole-school approach, including sharing of resources.  

Eco-Schools: the largest global sustainable school programme 

The global Eco-Schools programme answers some of these needs. Through its seven-step pedagogical approach, it has demonstrated how we can put the students at the centre of environmental action, changing them and, in the process, also their schools, homes and hopefully future workspaces. 

In the learning journey, the students identify a problem through an audit, plan out their actions, monitor and evaluate the implementation of an action plan, and reflect and make changes to effect incremental progress on both educational and environmental fronts, while engaging with stakeholders to learn and influence!  

Though it is one of the largest programmes globally, the approach needs rapid scaling up to reach the critical mass of educated citizens required to address the environmental crisis before us.  

Pramod Kumar Sharma

Dr Pramod Kumar Sharma is the Senior Director of Education with the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). As an Education for Sustainable Development professional with a broad experience of over 23 years, he is currently responsible for the overall development of the three formal educational programmes of FEE (Eco-Schools, LEAF, and YRE)