George Lucas Educational Foundation
Environmental Education

A Framework for Lessons on Sustainability

Teachers can use this framework to guide students to develop deep and enduring knowledge on environmental topics.

February 26, 2024
Anna Godeassi / The iSpot

Navigating the dense jungle of sustainability education can feel daunting. Curriculum requirements loom large, and a plethora of online resources promise solutions, but few offer a clear path. Some materials present mere islands of information—worksheets chock-full of facts, videos showcasing environmental problems, or tree-planting activities that don’t delve into root causes of climate change. Others promote superficial service: clean-up days or recycling drives that don’t develop deeper understandings of interconnected environmental systems.

These well-intentioned efforts often leave students with fragmented knowledge, a sense of helplessness, and limited agency. They grapple with the “what” but struggle with the “why”: Why is climate change happening? How do our actions impact the environment? What sustainable solutions exist, and how can we advocate for them? This approach fails to cultivate critical thinking, systems thinking, and problem-solving skills essential for tackling complex sustainability challenges.

As sustainability pioneers like Stephen Sterling and David Orr have advocated for decades, a holistic approach to sustainability education is crucial. We must move beyond mere “sustainability days” or extracurricular clubs that impact only a few eager students. To nurture sustainability mindsets and equip young people with tools for navigating an uncertain future, we need a clear framework that develops students’ content knowledge, critical thinking, and agency to take action. A framework that offers a mental model and structure for teachers to plan meaningful, holistic sustainability-oriented learning.

Drawing on my years spent working with teams, teaching, and researching sustainability education, I’ve developed a framework that consists of three key learning phases: learning about, learning for, and learning as sustainability. 

Learning ABOUT Sustainability

The foundation of this framework is the building of students’ comprehensive understandings of environmental and social systems. Aligned with curriculum standards, educators should emphasize hands-on engagements, real-world case studies, and connections to the natural world. This about phase of sustainability education is vital to the understanding of interconnectedness, a key concept in sustainability education and natural sciences. The goal is for students to grasp examples of sustainability, what makes something sustainable and, therefore, what makes something unsustainable.

During a recent grade 5 unit titled “Renewable Energy,” I observed how spending significant time in the about phase had a huge impact on student learning in the long term. Having delivered this unit in previous years, the teachers developing the unit felt that it was imperative to emphasize scientific knowledge and conceptual understanding before delving into discussions about renewability versus nonrenewability. 

They did this through a number of scientific inquiries and investigations where students explored the concept of potential and kinetic energy and how energy can be stored and transferred. Students used Frayer models and other visible thinking tools to develop solid conceptual understanding, which enabled teachers to identify misconceptions and teach accordingly. Establishing this depth of understanding set a foundation of knowledge for the rest of the unit, allowing students to develop informed and robust opinions moving forward.

Through this experience, we learned that we should align sustainability instruction with curriculum standards (often science-based); build a strong knowledge base using hands-on activities; use this phase as an opportunity to build connection with the natural world; utilize real-world case studies and local examples; and employ visible thinking tools to demonstrate understanding.

Learning FOR Sustainability

While acquiring knowledge is vital, the true essence of sustainability education lies in developing skills for active contribution. The for phase focuses on cultivating key 21st-century skills like critical thinking, systems thinking, creativity, and ethical responsibility. 

Through activities like case study comparisons, students can develop systems thinking by analyzing interconnected elements and potential consequences of actions and behaviors. Creativity comes into play as students propose solutions, while critical and ethical questioning encourages nuanced perspectives and avoids shallow arguments.

In the aforementioned Renewable Energy unit, students engaged in critical thinking activities based on case studies comparing various energy sources in different parts of the world. Students practiced systems thinking and worked to understand complex issues by drawing system maps, considering stakeholders, and identifying differing perspectives. They discussed the nuances of safe, clean, and renewable energy, challenging reliance on fossil fuels and exploring the limitations of renewables. This rich learning was made possible because of the strong content knowledge they’d built in the about phase.

Key actions as practitioners included providing opportunities for comparison and contrast; utilizing visible thinking tools like systems maps to highlight complexity; employing provocative questions to spark discussion and challenge assumptions; and creating a safe space for critical thought and challenging ideas.

Learning AS Sustainability

The pinnacle of sustainability education is when knowledge, skills, and dispositions translate into meaningful action. 

The as phase involves students’ applying acquired knowledge and skills to such action—by initiating school sustainability programs, collaborating with local organizations, or participating in community-based projects. The focus, here, is on translating theory into tangible contributions that address sustainability challenges. Action projects should be student-led with teacher guidance, building upon the about and for phases. Students can utilize their learning to develop authentic action points that address genuine needs, moving beyond tokenistic efforts.

Students in the Renewable Energy unit applied their learning through action projects based on their takeaways from the previous phases of the framework. Some designed light switch signs to promote mindful energy use. Others focused on fundraising for the installation of additional solar panels on the school roof, demonstrating alternative energy solutions. Teachers encouraged students to work in and lead small groups, with educators acting as coaches rather than project leaders.

The transferable principles, here, are to involve students in service projects and collaboration with local partners, include small acts within the school community, position the teacher as a coach and facilitator, and empower students to use prior learning to develop authentic action points.

Effective sustainability education revolves around learning about, for, and as sustainability. This framework is not a rigid formula, but rather a guide for ensuring that each element is present when teaching sustainability. It goes beyond theory, empowering students to make a positive impact on their environment and society. 

In the context of 21st-century education, a holistic approach not only supports academic rigor and understanding, but also embeds key skills, fosters agency, and develops competencies vital for an uncertain future. By approaching sustainability as a necessary component of cross-disciplinary education, we can shift toward a more sustainable future.

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