Education for living sustainably

There is a concern over the place and role of children and youth in society, and disadvantaged youth in particular!

There is rising anxiety over environmental issues nationally and globally!

Young people themselves are voicing concerns over the quality of their lives and their ability to find things to do!  

All this is happening at a time when risk characterises how we perceive much of what we do especially in public space.  Within this context, commentators are advocating enhanced opportunities for an outdoor learning that is more critical, culturally-situated, and locally contextualised.  In other words, it has to connect with people’s own lifestyles, but also potentially alter these lifestyles in favour of more sustainable ones.  Re-focusing outdoor learning on relevant environmental knowledge, understanding, skills and competences, which young people require to be effective citizens, now and in the future, will be a complex task.  It will involve a reconsideration of the relationship between different forms of mediation of outdoor experience in a range of locations with diverse purposes and foci.  In the policy field, there are already moves to adapt and enhance curricula to address specific environmental concerns and to make the world more sustainable.  The conclusion is that an enhanced focus for outdoor learning about environmental issues and sustainability could be more resonant with young people’s values, their identities, and their daily lives. Schools will play a role in this shift in emphasis in environmental for living sustainably, but so too will families, out-of-school provisions, outdoor educators and out of school volunteers. 

The school context

 It is against this background that, in 2007, a commissioned report for Scottish Natural Heritage was published dealing with young people’s interaction with the environment through formal outdoor learning.  This investigation used innovative research methods in a sustained survey of schools and pre-schools using image-based approaches to elicit the views of a wide age-range of young people. It provides a critical baseline measure of practice in terms of provision and experience from young people’s practical perspectives on sustainability.   At a time when environmental problems are giving rise to concern, time spent in nature is sometimes seen as a panacea. Some even see a linear connection between time spent in contact with the natural world and the likelihood of people taking action for the environment. But others do not believe that simply being in nature will lead people to care for it and take action with respect to environmental problems.  It has been shown that experience of wild environments does instill an interest in outdoor activities of all kinds but will not necessarily lead to taking action for the environment or changing one’s lifestyle. In particular, the idea that there is a linear relationship between time spent in contact with nature and behaviour change has been seriously challenged.   Emphasis in adventure type activities, although it does involve learning ‘in’ the environment does not often include learning ‘about’ or ‘for’ the environment. Teachers do not see activities in wildlife areas providing a socially orientated environmental education experience. The focus is almost entirely on the acquisition of practical skills, personal development and working with others. The curriculum framework is ‘ecology’ rather than ‘conservation’.  Generally, outdoor educators name the following as their top three outcomes:  

  • group cooperation;
  • self-esteem;
  • and increased responsibility.

 These are all mainly aspects of personal development, with no practical references to living sustainably. Evidence from the Scottish survey indicates that nature-related foci and ‘advancing a cause’, which might include taking action for the environment or addressing the needs of future generations, were very low on the agenda in adventure type activities. Clearly, residential field course experiences and out-of-school clubs in wild or seminatural areas are a significant learning experiences for those that have them. But, in Scotland, it was only when programmes such as the John Muir Award and Natural Connections, for example, were examined, did young people specifically mention conservation or environmental protection issues. Therefore, time spent in contact with nature, developing environmental understanding and enhancing a relationship with ecosystems is not a sufficient ingredient. Young people were only moved towards action for sustainability where programmes contained strong elements related to environmental concern. Ethical concerns and enhanced relationships with nature only came when dedicated teachers taught them as main themes. This suggests that the environmental competence and environmental literacy needed for young people to be responsible citizens are more likely to come from programmes that address them directly.   A key finding of this research is that provision of formal outdoor education needs to be focused on these aspects, be made more regularly available throughout the year, and be more inclusive for all pupils. Making a once-off trip to a residential centre should be just one component of a more sustained programme required to promote a caring relationship between young people and natural heritage. The programme also needs to be based on what is valued and meaningful for young people with regards sustainability and environmental sensitivity. This would require schools to enhance and alter their provision in terms of its location, focus and type and be to sensitive to the way outdoor experience is focused, mediated and contextualised. In this light, outdoor learning would be a necessary but not sufficient element in a wider programme of education for sustainable development for pupils, staff and the communities of which they are a part. 

To develop a relationship with nature that is deeper than ecology, learners need to make multiple visits to a place, in a diversity of seasons and weathers whilst maintaining the adventure and technical aspects of activities. It is helpful to have an emphasis on locally available or in-school specialists and local support structures. A key finding in the Scottish survey is that young people’s relationship with nature was enhanced by sustained or regular visits to places they came to know well and which could be offered more regularly throughout the year and in a more inclusive manner to all pupils. This prompts the idea is that outdoor environment-related education could be more regularly located in local neighbourhoods where the focus would be on local nature sites, trees in the streets and the grassy environments of parks, school playing fields and roadside verges. This would require a multidisciplinary approach to potentially help to render it more meaningful to the everyday community lives of diverse student groups. Considering how places might be visited more regularly in all seasons through a variety of subject areas would seem to be a worthwhile aim if connections between pupils and environments are to significantly change behaviour.  In this context the emphasis should be on conservation management that could be applied to other local community/home sustainability issues, such as energy use, crime prevention, transport and home insulation.

 This is all part of a required shift in educational perspective towards non-formal project-based learning with its potential for an improved ‘fit’ between young people, their neighbourhood and the well being of their community. Such work requires a long-term management plan so that the project spans the school lives of individual pupils.  Here, there is increased scope for schools to draw on a rich fund of knowledge in their local areas for new types of outdoor learning. The hope is that planners, housing specialists, city traffic managers and policy makers will begin to take on board what psychologists, educators and play specialists now know about the inter-relationships between local environmental issues and the need for adults, young people and children to become involved in their resolution. 

There are broader cultural factors in play too. In some Scandinavian countries, children’s independence, the acquisition of environmental skills, and learning to deal with dangers in the environment are more appreciated. In the UK, as evidence from young people in Scotland testified, there appears to be less opportunity to engage with environments in ways that encouraged independence of this sort. In particular, outdoor learning is also likely to require, if not affect, a different relationship between adult and pupil than that normally experienced inside schools. There is also the question here of what commitments and values parents, outdoor educators, teachers and others bring to bear on the outdoor experiences they so critically mediate for young people. It is argued that the role of teachers and the school community in valuing and supporting children’s relationship with the environment is as important as access to more naturalised unstructured environments. Clearly, these understandings will have to be taken forward with the rhetoric of joined-up thinking between government departments/portfolios and inter-agency working.  In this strategic context, the voices of young people and their parents should be heard in the school. 

The extracurricular context

 Shortly after the first global environment summit in 1992, a group of young people gathered together at the UK headquarters of the educational charity Peace Child International. They were funded by the UN to produce a young people’s version of Agenda 21, which was entitled ‘Rescue Mission Planet Earth’. It was published on International Earth Day in 1994.  The aim was to network children as a force to conserve the resources of planet Earth.   In Wales, Rescue Mission stimulated teachers and children in the then County of Dyfed to develop a practical scheme for harnessing the National Curriculum to meet the objectives of the Local Agenda 21. The scheme developed as an all-Wales bilingual programme named SCAN (Schools in Communities Agenda 21 Network).   The UN group put forward the following diagram (Fig 1) to illustrate their manifesto for what they would like to happen as a next step. Their idea was to establish a global democracy of children starting with young people’s groups working through their local school. This did not happen. 

Fig 1 A global network of children for sustainability (1994)  

gettingtogether2.jpg   The 1994 scheme for setting up a youth network produced by the group of young people who created Rescue Mission is still a good working model for out-of-school networking of ideas and achievements locally and globally. To mark the Johannesburg ‘Rio Plus 10’ Environment Summit (2002) a selection of topics from Rescue Mission was produced by children of Cardiff schools as a guide for children to join with SCAN and produce their own mission in Wales with long-term plans for environmental improvements in home and neighbourhood.  Twenty years on from Rio, an example of what can be achieved now, using commonplace tools of the Internet, is the students led, not-for-profit and non-partisan organization in Uganda, Students for Global Democracy Uganda. This was set up in 2005 to inspire young people, principally students, to adapt to a culture of leadership, good governance and sustainability. The aim is to effectively enable grass roots participation in the democratic process and sustainable development of their country and the outside world. The Ugandan initiative is part of a global network of students for democracy with the goals of: 

  • encouraging solidarity with, and giving to support to, those across the globe, especially students, who struggle against dictatorship. This entails holding demonstrations of solidarity, providing financial support, and facilitating the training of democratic movements when necessary.
  • educating the national and international communities on the problems created by authoritarian governments and the solutions that worldwide democracy brings. This entails running awareness campaigns via speaking events, panel discussions, letters to the editor, and other innovative events that further inform the publics of the world.
  • lobbying governments to make democracy promotion the primary focus of their foreign policies, and working against those governmental policies that harm democratisation. This entails running petition campaigns, letter-writing campaigns, and protests when necessary.
  • bringing together all sides of the political spectrum in the fight for democracy. This means we do not pay lip service to the concept of non-partisanship, but truly seek it by listening to all sides of the political spectrum.

The network is based on the following beliefs:- 

  • That the desire for and ability to maintain freedom are innate characteristics held by all humans, regardless of race, religion, or creed.
  • That worldwide democracy will lead to eventual end of interstate conflict and a drastic decrease in starvation, as democratic countries do not war with one another nor has one ever experienced a famine.
  • That dictators are often the leading cause of terrorism as they oppress their people and deny them peaceful means of expression.
  • That the governments of the world’s entrenched democracies must make the promotion of freedom the primary focus of their foreign policies.
  • That the transition to democracy should be accomplished whenever possible by non-violent methods and in a open-minded non-partisan manner.
  • That the economic integration of a country’s people and isolation solely of the dictator and his cadre is much more effective in achieving a freer state than blind embargos.

A similar network, with a student arm, that is more attuned to the goals of sustainability is the Earth Charter Initiative.  Here the aim is to promote the transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society.  The initiative is founded on a shared ethical framework that includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. The idea of the Earth Charter originated in 1987, when the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development called for a new charter to guide the transition to sustainable development. In 1992, the need for a charter was urged by then-Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, but the time for such a declaration was not believed to be right. The Rio Declaration became the statement of the achievable consensus at that time. In 1994, Maurice Strong (Chairman of the Earth Summit) and Mikhail Gorbachev, working through organizations they each founded (the Earth Council and Green Cross International respectively), restarted the Earth Charter as a civil society initiative, with the help of the government of the Netherlands. There is now an organised Earth Charter Youth Group, which list the benefits of joining the Earth Charter youth network as follows: 

Association with a bold and dynamic movement that asserts that ethical sustainable development is not just a good idea, but an imperative for humanity’s and the Earth’s survival;Listing of your organizational profile on the official Earth Charter website that currently receives nearly 100,000 distinct visitors each month and to 

The Earth Charter is being used in education for all ages and within formal and non-formalcontexts. It has proved to be an especially valuable teaching instrument in the evolving field ofenvironmental education, and its principles are in accord with UNESCO’s early definitions ofenvironmental education found in the Belgrade Charter (1975) and the Tbilisi Declaration (1977).  It has been utilized in human rights and peace education and has been taken up in new educational endeavors aimed at sustainability designated variously as education for sustainable development, education for sustainability, and, even, environmental education for sustainable development. In these various arenas, the Earth Charter is contributing to the ongoing critical conceptualization of education processes that aim to develop understanding of and promote justice, sustainability and peace. 

Fig 2 Model for using the Earth Charter to turn knowledge into action


  The Earth Charter  

Use of the Earth Charter in Education

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