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Education for Sustainable Lifestyles – a vital step to reach the Sustainable Development Goals

  • Published on January 23, 2021
The Global Search for Sustainable Schools showcases how Education for Sustainable Development can be integrated across cultural contexts, local challenges and subject areas.

In 2019 the SLE programme launched the Global Search for Sustainable Schools, a project which granted funds to schools from 9 countries to implement their sustainability plans. These plans span from building sustainable campuses to integrating education for sustainable development into their curriculum. With the arrival of COVID 19 the schools, students and parents were deeply affected and faced several challenges in continued learning. For many their sustainability plans took a pause as schools closed and administrators and teachers dedicated time to find ways to provide distance-learning. For some the transition to digital learning could happen rather quickly while for others, like our partners in Brazil, large geographic distances and unequal access to internet emphasized the digital divide and its effects on education. While all schools faced challenges the interruption of COVID-19 has presented opportunities for schools, teachers and parents to imagine and test ways to bring sustainability into the daily lives of their students and children.

Education for Sustainable Development 

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is an educational approach that includes key sustainable development issues in teaching and learning. At the heart of ESD is the goal to motivate and empower learners to assess and change behaviors and take action for sustainability. Central to this is enabling learners to connect local realities to the global context - encouraging critical thinking, future scenario building and collaborative decision making. A component to ESD is Education for Sustainable Lifestyles (ESL), which pays attention to how our daily choices are linked to the health of our community, the resilience of our local ecosystems and the global challenges we face today.  


ESL focuses on preparing students to engage in life-long learning and transformative change, and to actively engage with sustainable development throughout their lives.


While ESD and ESL are increasingly gaining attention, these educational approaches are far from standard practice. Most often curriculum focuses on subjects like mathematics, science, history and languages leaving little time to learn about sustainability – and its impacts on all dimensions of life. Equally challenging are the current processes and timelines of teaching which are incompatible with the pedagogy of ESD. Subject teaching is often instructional, involving 3 steps: firstly, teachers clarify concepts, then students demonstrate their understanding of the concept by completing tasks, and lastly teachers assess the knowledge of their students. When teaching concepts of sustainability, which are often multidimensional and context specific, instructional teaching is not enough to instil a deep understanding that can lead to behavior change and action.

Anne Edwards (2017) suggests, that to include sustainability into education, one must expand conventional subject teaching by centering concepts around “matters of concern”. This means that students acquire subject knowledge and before they are asked to demonstrate their knowledge students are given time to investigate the concepts further by applying them to local issues faced in their community or personal life. Using subject knowledge combined with knowledge of their specific context, learners try to find solutions.


By engaging in an ethics-led deliberative learning process students are given the space to assess the value of what they are learning and explore just and locally relevant way of living and relating sustainably.  


Integrating Education for Sustainable Lifestyles into current curriculum

In South Africa, GSSS schools used the pandemic as an opportunity to expand subject teaching and illustrate how subjects relate to global events. Drought and decreasing water supply are current threats in South Africa, affecting farmers and communities across the country. When the pandemic struck, proper handwashing became an entry point to teach how ecosystems, water supply, sanitation and health are all connected.

Students built and used tippytaps on school grounds which provided a tangible example of how much water can be saved by designing tools that encourage water conservation. This interactive task allowed students to ponder and understand how our daily actions affect our  future access to clean water, and how clean water is closely connected personal and community health.

Students were also given tasks that focus on how human actions can positively or negatively affect our ecosystems. Below is a photo of students rehabilitating a natural area demonstrating how human actions practiced over time can have positive impacts on our environment.  Students were also asked to monitor the health of a local river using simple citizen science tools. This gave them the opportunity to understand the timelines found in nature and link daily actions to long-term effects. Allowing students to actively observe and affect the course of nature teaches them that they are themselves a part of nature, and that they play a vital role in its resilience or in its demise.

The tempo-spatial relationship of nature and the awareness that humans function within this relationship is in itself a core aspect of education for sustainable lifestyles. Positioning the current state of society in the context of the past, students learn to inquire what can be. What are the possibilities of the future and how can our actions, systems and tools today contribute to achieving this? What can be becomes the level of engagement in schools – instigating students not only to relate the past and present to the future but also to actively ponder how the subjects they learn are connected to individual actions, community well-being and global development.

Before the pandemic struck several of the GSSS schools in the Philippines began planting vegetable gardens as part of their sustainability plans. The gardens served as an educational tool to teach students about plant biology, soil health and nutrition – and as a way to support school meal programs and regreen the campuses. As the pandemic persisted the school gardens became an important source of food for the close-by community. Similarly, in South Africa the closure of schools meant that families were struggling to feed their children - quickly turning the pandemic into a hunger crisis. The school gardens in South Africa were planted with indigenous drought resistant crops, and meals were supplemented with local edible plants such as wild spinach. Teachers and students in both countries engaged in community sharing of the harvested crops- illustrating how global events affected the local community, and how local actions (and plant varieties) can contribute to community resilience.

GSSS schools in Vietnam and Uganda developed projects focused on waste management - preventing waste generation and diverting waste from landfills. The schools in Uganda launched an educational campaign to teach students and the wider community about waste management practices. Students developed innovative ways to use waste materials in the maintenance of their schools. One school in Vietnam set up and Environment Centre which investigates ways to create recycled materials that can be used teachers and students to support learning in the subjects of science and mathematics.



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