Sustainability Education

We recently came across a study published in The Journal of Environmental Education focused on the effectiveness of sustainability education in four different unique schools. The study lead to interesting results about which methods of sustainability messaging are most effective at encouraging youth to be environmentally conscious members of society. Schools must immerse students in sustainable practices and possess a culture of equality and sustainability in order to impact students.

After interviewing students at each of the four schools, this study concluded that in order to teach sustainability to students and inspire all of them, the school must first foster an environment of equality between teachers and students and give every community member a voice. One small public school in Berkeley, CA called Common Ground especially emphasized equality and gave students a voice in everything from which classes are offered to the firing and hiring of faculty. These students seemed to have a very strong relationship with faculty members, which created a sense of trust. As a result, students listened to and respected the opinions of faculty members when it came to matters like sustainability, and a mentor-like relationship between student and teacher allowed sustainability messages to be conveyed effectively.

Similarly, this study found that surrounding students with a sustainable environment and, particularly at a boarding school, building an environment in which sustainable practices must be adhered to, is effective at teaching sustainability. Students at The Island School in a remote area in the Bahamas has implemented fascinating sustainable infrastructure and sustainable practices. The school gets its energy from solar panels and treats its own water with constructed wetlands and green roofs, to name only a few of the school’s sustainable practices. The Island School also encourages students to reduce water usage by taking navy showers and teaches environmental and individual responsibility as the school does not employ any custodial staff. Students and faculty cook their own food and maintain their own facilities. Interviews with students found these practices to be effective in instilling responsibility and environmental consciousness in the students.

These two schools were compared with a slightly more conventional private school in Washington called Lakeside in which the goal and focus are on academic success, although many attempts have been made to teach and discuss sustainability. Most of these attempts have fallen by the wayside in what one student called a “sea of apathy.” Although many of these discrepancies between student outlooks at different schools could likely be traced back to differences in upbringing and other outside factors, this study brings to attention the possibility that talking about sustainability and telling people about it alone will do nothing unless the talking is done by people we trust and it is combined with the implementation of sustainable practices and putting words into action. In short, people need to be immersed in a culture of sustainability in order to truly learn and care.

As Grounded Strategies build green spaces, we strive to make them as interactive as possible. As we educate and promote sustainability through our work with the all the communities we interface with, it is also necessary to build trust between the communities in which we work; mutual trust and interactivity go hand-in-hand. As we continue developing green spaces, one of our core principles is to always do our work with the community in the planning, development, implementation, and sustainability. Involving communities in these processes will help to build and maintain mutual trust, and adding interactive pieces to our projects such as art installations or community gardens can help us to add the interactivity piece to our work. Looking forward, we seek to deepen our roots as we share our mission and enact our vision.


Study Citation:

Amy Lyons Higgs & Victoria M. McMillan (2010) Teaching Through Modeling: Four Schools’ Experiences in Sustainability Education, The Journal of Environmental Education, 38:1, 39-53, DOI: 10.3200/JOEE.38.1.39-53

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