Teaching sustainability

The purpose of education in the 2020s

For Kirsty Knowles, there are two crucial purposes in education. 1. Bringing sustainability to the centre of the curriculum and 2. Supporting them in taking action as a result.

An urgent issue for young people.

Attitudes to sustainability in schools are changing and the rate of this change is accelerating. Children in primary settings are already generating creative ideas and demonstrating active interest in helping adults ensure they grow up in a world that is protecting their future, and adolescence is the pivotal time for developing a student’s “executive function skills” (developingchild.harvard.edu, 2012).

In my experience, pupils are bursting with imagination and ambition when passionate about the change(s) they want to actualise for the planet they inhabit. They seem uninhibited by barriers and their eagerness to get going in the here and now is palpable.

This energy needs to be celebrated and harnessed to sustain an enriching and progressive education, through which they become agents for change in community contexts connected to a global landscape.

Is it so urgent for their teachers?

The question is, are we, as a profession, keeping up? Does our vision for the curriculum, and the way we teach it, match the changing perceptions of young people about the importance attached to sustainability? Not in my book. The whole school strike movement suggests that educators are lagging behind, badly.

The need for a new educational paradigm based on sustainability

The need to understand the concept of and take action for a sustainable world is, in fact, so pressing that old fashioned subject based curricula are not only dated and limited but detrimental. We need the imagination to develop ambitious cross-curricular lesson planning to reveal to our students the interdependence of the environment, economy and society to facilitate the kind of deep understanding required for shaping a better world. Generation Z is the future and so have an inherent interest in becoming thoughtful and proactive citizens in the process. We simply have to support them.

Bringing about change

The good news is that research and evidence-based findings strongly suggest that when students identify with a real-world problem such as sustainability, they exercise metacognitive strategies as their passion and their commitment for problem-solving drives them to achieve longer term outcomes (developingchild.harvard.edu, 2012). In the 2020s, the idea of sustainability is the lens through which children and schools need to examine local and global issues. When providing this lens, we need to make clear the connections between environmental integrity, social equity and economic prosperity, as we shift our pedagogical focus towards the kind of integrative learning that develops a deep understanding of this, the major issue of our age. Bringing about this change will require ethical leadership by adults and the development of aspirational ethical leadership for students. Is it too radical to suggest that young people not only need to understand their world by making authentic discoveries of what is happening around them, but also encourage the use of  platforms that will enable them to campaign for the kind difference that is urgently needed if their world is to become truly sustainable? Not in my opinion. It is that urgent.

Teacher training

Teacher-training also needs to adapt, while a career in teaching must be made more sustainable. By focusing on how to design learning opportunities built around the idea of sustainability for students, as a key aspect of a sustainable teaching career, education can support and initiate efforts for a ‘greener’ future. Protecting the professionalism and wellness of educators enables them to do the vital work that brought them to teaching in the first place, ultimately benefitting students.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) suggests to me that we must ensure the basics are met for educators and pupils: sustainability is at the heart of creating humane conditions for the right kind of teaching and learning. Ecological sustainability views human beings as part of nature and Orr (1991) encourages us to use nature as a model for personal growth. I believe we can synergise growth and sustainability if we lead ethically, teach empathetically and model the importance of taking care of our precious resources for ‘greener’ growth.

Sustainability at the centre of education

We therefore need to rethink our teaching and learning objectives to deconstruct the mystery and sometimes overly complicated definitions of sustainability, and in so doing create an interdisciplinary curriculum with hands-on activities in place-based and service contexts. Helping to improve their school, neighbourhood and thereby the planet will give students life meaning and drive further learning. Their worldview will expand as global issues are tackled from an organically purposeful view of the real world – a world that they understand and a world that they aspire to treat with respect. Understanding sustainability will then no longer be a distant, abstract concept. It will be as tangible and expected in their school day as the core skills of literacy and numeracy, embedded into the culture, ethos and values of an education that both sustains and is sustainable.


Kirsty Knowles is an educational thought leader, sustainability coach and consultant for behavioural change. A former Head of Junior School, she advises 50 Shades Greener and is providing expertise and support for Building a Greener Future an initiative for primary and secondary schools provided by the Kildare & Wicklow Education & Training Board in Ireland.

Building a Greener Future is also available to schools around the world.

For Kirsty’s LinkedIn page see https://www.linkedin.com/in/kirsty-knowles-31755b1b4/



Feature Image:  by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Support Images:  by NiklasPntk and Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

Further Reading



Center on the Developing Child. (2012) Executive Function (InBrief).

From: www.developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/what-is-executive-function-and-how-does-it-relate-to-child-development/

Farber, K. (2020) www.edutopia.org/article/7-ways-make-teaching-more-sustainable-profession

Maslow, A. (1943) A theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

Orr, D. (1991) Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. State University of New York Press.

Strategies for Education for Sustainability, from the Kappa Delta Pi Paper: www.kdp.org/initiatives/pdf/efsguide_section2.pdf