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What Should Education for Sustainable Development Look Like?

Updated: Feb 9

Like many other university students my age, I grew up knowing next to nothing about sustainable development. But that was in the 2000s, the early 2010s—no one knew anything about sustainable development. It wasn’t a thing yet, not like now, with environmental activism being on the forefront of the mainstream consciousness.

Recycling? Throwing my trash into a garbage bin got me a pat on the back, never mind the colour of the bin!

Climate change? Summer’s hot every year, what are you talking about? Here’s some cash, go get yourself some ice cream. (I vaguely remember something about acid rain, but sometime around middle school people just...stopped talking about it. Someone should check that out).

The discussion on sustainable development today is very different than what it was half a decade ago: young activists arm themselves with social media in calls for action in the name of sustainable causes, and everyone has an opinion about everything, from veganism to waste-free consumption to renting clothes. The discourse on sustainable development nowadays is very much so a thing—at least in many parts of the world.

Somewhere along the line, this thing became established in societal institutions--governments, corporations, and schools. Classes added lectures on the harms of greenhouse gases, the impact of meat industries, and how renewable energy will become the next saving grace of the planet.

Some of these classes overturned my mindset towards sustainable development. Others I committed to merely for an acceptable grade. But a frustration I’ve always had with all these classes was how abstract the topics were. Climate change and environmental issues—they all seemed distant from my own life, with professors citing examples from relatively remote countries like the US and Australia. It seemed futile to care so much about it, when I lacked the power to make a change about these issues. As time passed, the invaluable lessons I learned faded away as I pursued other academic endeavours and focused on more evidently pressing issues in my life.

And yet, it’s vital that the younger generation learn about sustainability, especially when their households may lack such knowledge.When children come home and bring the discussion of climate change and nature preservation to the dinner table, suddenly the whole family is talking about it. Education has the potential to have impactful domino-effects on whole communities. But for that to be the case, schools need to get these lessons to stick.

In order for education for sustainable development to have a long-lasting impact on students, it needs to be Approachable, Accessible, and Applicable.


Don’t teach abstract lessons.

Graphs, data, theories—all and well in the classroom for a final term exam, but not particularly useful if you want your kids to walk out of the classroom with their impressionable minds blown for the rest of their lives. It’s been a couple of years, but I still remember watching Food Inc., an eye-opening documentary about America’s food industry. A little too graphic for a bunch of 15-year olds in class, but I toddled out of that classroom vowing on the spot to reduce my meat consumption, a practice I still commit to to this day. These lessons need to be taught with visceral examples, discussions, and topics that your audience (in this case, students) can resonate with.


Examples need to be relevant.

People aren’t going to start a vested interest in something that has no relation to them—I sure didn’t. Do I care about pollution in Canada? Sure. Did I care because knowing about it equals a good grade? Yes. Will I continue to care about pollution in Canada after the course, when it is not relevant to myself, nor am I in a position where I can make a change? Not really, unless I care deeply about it for any particular reason.

If you want your lessons to stick, students need to learn about what’s relevant around their vicinity. Every region has an environmental cause of some sort nowadays. Do some research: what are some of the things your community/city is doing? Point students towards these causes. Show, with real-life examples, what progress towards sustainable development looks like—anything that isn’t right in front of you will not be likely to make a notable impact.


Empower your students.

With every instance I’ve read about environmental causes, I always end up helpless, knowing that I was not able to influence or help with these faraway causes. This led to apathy, where I simply stopped caring. Teachers need to show students they have the power to make a change through individual action. As small as these impacts can be, they have the power to become ingrained into students’ minds as they grow up, becoming adults that have a choice to apply these lessons learnt to worthy causes.

In action, this would mean stepping out of the classroom: contact your NGOs for school trips. Teach your students personal habit changes in their own lives. Initiate school charities and monthly challenges. Telling them about an issue isn’t going to do a thing until you show them how they can take action that actually helps.

However, among many things, actionable sustainable development is a privilege often reserved only for educational institutions in more developed regions, where sustainable development is seen as more of a priority. Developing nations simply lack these opportunities. With that, I applaud teachers that remain adamant on teaching the future generation on lessons that they cannot yet apply to their surroundings. Schools serve as a formal institution to equip the future generation with necessary knowledge, and it’s heartening to see sustainable development entering the ranks of education.

For many, the school is the first place where they learn about sustainable development. I wish my teachers were able to do this when I was a student, but alas—either they were not able to due to various constraints, or they simply didn’t care enough to put in the effort. So schools: teach your students with relatable examples, relevant examples, and equip them with actionable causes, the way many of my teachers didn’t...and the way some of my teachers did. For the sake of the planet, and the future generations who need to have a say in it, I hope schools start putting in effort, and start teaching the right way.

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