For A Better Tomorrow: The Need To Integrate Sustainability In Education There are very clear local and global environmental, social, and economic advantages of implementing sustainability education into the classroom and the wider school community.
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With the 28th edition of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) around the corner, here's a question that's worth pondering over: how do we purposefully and meaningfully integrate sustainability in our educational systems?
So, the starting point to the answer to that question has to be why, and then how. After all, education is playing an increasingly critical role in raising that consciousness and creating sustainable solutions for the future of our planet. Indeed, our children must have the opportunity to learn why there are so many challenges facing this planet, and what these issues are, so that they have the knowledge, skills, and motivation as to how they can do more about safeguarding the future.
The effects of human-caused global warming are happening now, they are irreversible for people alive today, and they will worsen as long as humans add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. We see the consequences of a warming planet through the rise of sea levels, more severe and frequent flooding, extreme storms and droughts, and more intense heat waves, all of which lead to such outcomes as food and water insecurity, biodiversity loss, poorer air quality, human displacement, etc.
Our children are the first generation that have a greater awareness of climate change, and, at the same time, they see the devastating impacts on our planet. They are threatened and vulnerable; they need our help. Sacha Wright and Emily Osterloff highlighted the feelings our children might be having in an article published on London's Natural History Museum website: "Watching our natural world change, sometimes combined with feeling personal guilt, or witnessing climate indifference and elected powers failing to act with the pace required, can evoke a variety of emotions, from anger and frustration to dread, powerlessness, and hopelessness. It can be uncomfortable, overwhelming and paralyzing. This phenomenon is known as climate anxiety or eco-anxiety, often defined as a chronic fear of environmental doom, a worry for what might happen if the world does not take action to avert disaster in time."
In my work with schools across the world, I have seen a really worrying rise in eco-anxiety, and so, my first and most important point as to how to purposefully and meaningfully integrate sustainability in our educational systems is simply this: give our children knowledge, understanding, a voice that will be heard and be acted on. Our children need to be able to better understand the issues that affect our planet, and from that, be given the space to express their anger, grief, and fear, which will help to drive action. These are not negative feelings, because when they feel they are being listened to, and when they realize that there are people who genuinely care about their future, and about how they feel, that is what drives action, and gives them hope. But we don't need to have hope to begin to act. Instead, action engenders hope.
Peter Milne. Image courtesy Target4Green.
The UAE Minister of Education H.E. Dr. Ahmad Belhoul Al Falasi has stated that COP28 is significant, because it provides a path forward for using education to achieve sustainable development objectives as well as to combat climate change.
As Dr. Al Falasi put it: "The vital part of education in shifting brains, behaviors, and beliefs about environmental issues today, and in the years to come, comes with the recognition that people's behaviors toward the environment are still the key to having a real impact." There are many ways in which schools can take a critical role in enhancing climate change and sustainability education, and I have witnessed a lot of schools already doing some great work in this area.
Here's what schools need to keep in mind when doing so:
Sustainability must be a core purpose within the ethos of a school, and it must be backed up by a dedicated team that includes a sustainability coordinator working closely with the senior leadership team and the facilities team.
Be well-resourced and up to date on what is happening in the local region and globally. That should include a greater understanding of COP, particularly COP21, and how it relates to COP28 in the UAE.
Environmental/sustainability concepts offer an exciting context for the application of scientific principles, math, and language skills, as well as social studies concepts. It promotes critical thinking, problem-solving, and action, all of which develop confidence in addressing the challenges to sustainable development. Above all, education for sustainable development is critical in understanding the consequences of what humans are doing to the planet, and the rights and responsibilities that we all share. Keeping the above point in mind, there needs to be regular opportunities for staff training, as well as parent and student workshops based around the UN Sustainable Development Goals and how to embed them into the curriculum. (There are many excellent resources out there- for example, see: https://www.un. org/sustainabledevelopment/student- resources)
Understand the urgency of the climate crisis, and make it personal.
Be a role model for schools, and have high ambitions. Go beyond recycling to become zero-waste, plastic-free, and sustainably sourced. Only by walking the talk can students and teachers be inspired.
Focus on, get involved with, and support local organizations and other local school communities. We are all in this together, so the greater collaboration and partnership opportunities, the better. From my time in Dubai from 2005 to 2015 as a teacher, environmental education coordinator and consultant, and since then, based in the UK as the founder and Director of Target4Green, I have had the privilege of working with a myriad of amazing organizations and school communities. There is no greater satisfaction in this area of education than to see local schools and sustainable companies/organizations working together to integrate sustainability into the community in a practical, purposeful, and meaningful way.
This has been most evident for me through the Beyond COP21 Symposium series, which started in Dubai in 2016, and has since taken place 35 times in 18 different countries. I am so lucky to be working with school communities across the world to bring them together, to work together, and to find solutions together to the many challenges facing this planet. Many of them have been international schools that have hosted in the Beyond COP21 series, and they have directly worked with local government schools through the event platform as well.
And bringing people together, from all aspects of life, is so important, and that is why networking at events like GESS Dubai - the leading education conference and exhibition in the Middle East- is also so valuable. There is actually no similar event of the scale of GESS in the region, and this has been a definitive gathering to meet the top international suppliers and learn from world-class industry trendsetters.
According to data compiled by ISC Research exclusively for GESS Dubai, the last decade has witnessed a substantial 54.6% increase in the number of international schools worldwide.
The UAE, at the forefront of this educational wave, boasts 769 international schools or a significant 37% of the total. As of January 2023, the region is home to 1.9 million students attending international schools, reflecting a 7.9% increase over the past five years. However, a lot of the schools in the region struggle with resources, and there is an increasing demand from more international schools opening.
However, there are very clear local and global environmental, social, and economic advantages of implementing sustainability education into the classroom and the wider school community, as well as reaching out and learning from each other, and certainly, international schools are leading the way on this. But, at the end of the day, we simply have to do more for the sake of our children. As educators, parents, custodians, businesses, we all own that burden of responsibility.