Joe Brooks
Jun 8 · 9 min read


Kim Rakow Bernier is the Co-Chair of the K-12 and Teacher Education Sector of the U.S. Partnership for the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (

When I work with educators around the country on integrating global issues and sustainability into the curriculum, I often start with a visioning exercise. I ask them to respond to the statement, “What do you think the world will look like in 50 years?” The responses to this question are overwhelmingly negative: there will be more crime, more pollution, overpopulation, less tolerance, etc. Before allowing the audience to wallow for too long in the depressing nature of the dystopia they’ve just imagined, I ask a slightly different question, “What do you want the future to look like in 50 years?” Changing just one word in this question yields very different responses. Now educators excitedly explain their visions: a world where everyone gets enough to eat every day, the air and water are clean, neighborhoods are walkable, and local and global communities are thriving. A subtle shift in language empowers teachers and students to think about what we want our future to look like. I do this exercise because it demonstrates the foundation of what education for sustainability is all about.“ giving students the tools to be involved and engaged in creating their future.

More than the Latest Shade of Green
While education for sustainability certainly includes an environmental perspective, it is more holistic in its approach. The sustainability lens takes into consideration future generations, social justice, culture, economics, and natural resources. Although demonstrations like the one above are powerful in their ability to convey the meaning of education for sustainability (EfS), definitions also have their place. In 1987 a report called Our Common Future was published as the result of The Brundtland Commission (formally the World Commission on Environment and Development), a meeting convened by the United Nations in 1983. In this document, sustainable development is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” While the concept of sustainable development itself was not new at that time, the report represented a basic international consensus on the definition and importance of sustainable development and the interconnected nature of environmental, economic, and social development. In addition to the elements of intergenerational equity that are defined in this foundational document, sustainability is about balancing positive and negative impacts of actions, products, and decisions on the environment, economy, and society. This idea is sometimes referred to in business as the triple bottom line.

In K-12 education, the implementation of teaching for a sustainable future has been more recently defined. The K-12 and Teacher Education Sector Team of a national group called the U.S. Partnership of Education for Sustainable Development ( developed a set of student learning standards that very specifically address the big ideas of teaching for sustainability and define what K-12 students should know and be able to do to be sustainability literate. Three overarching standards are followed a summary chart of concepts by grade bands. These concepts are organized by components which are directly connected to the three learning standards. The seven main components of education for sustainability are:

• intergenerational responsibility,
• interconnectedness,
• ecological systems,
• economic systems,
• social and cultural systems,
• personal action, and
• collective action.

The standards serve as a guiding document in the creation of core content standards that promote sustainability literacy, sustainability and environmental standards developed by states, frameworks for teaching and learning at the school level, and the development of individual units and lesson plans.

Transformative, not Additive
EfS is a framework that can be used to investigate and address global issues and to get students involved in taking action in their local and global communities. Thus, education for sustainability is NOT a long list of facts and ideas that have to be crammed onto an already full curriculum. Rather, it is a subtle shift in teaching that facilitates students’ ability to think about the interrelatedness of big issues, to develop the capacity to interpret multiple perspectives, and ultimately to feel empowered to engage in making a difference. Teaching and learning are transformed when viewed through the sustainability education lens.

So what do EfS classrooms look like? The reality is that there isn’t one simple answer, but one thing they have in common is that students are engaged, working out of their seats, collaborating in small groups, choosing and defending positions, and actively considering how their lives connect to issues of global importance. This plays out in lots of different ways. On the curriculum side, teachers and schools do everything from including a lesson or unit on sustainability to extend the current curriculum and make real world connections for students to building sustainability into their service learning or culminating project requirements to using sustainability as the context to teach all core subjects. Two examples of how sustainability lessons relate to core subject area content follow.

“Why am I Learning This?
Education for sustainability holds the promise of making school meaningful and relevant for more students as it establishes connections to the real world and places them in it. A middle school science teacher addresses the concept of ecological footprint and the relationship between humans and the environment by asking his students to identify the component parts of a cheeseburger. Easy, right? A bun, a beef patty, and cheese. Then he guides his students as they trace each part back to where it came from and what was involved in producing it and getting it to their table. For example, of course a beef patty comes from a cow, but there are many steps in between the cow and the burger“ the grass and grain used for feed, the water needed to produce that feed, the fertilizers and pesticides used on the grazing land, the slaughterhouse, the transportation of the beef to a restaurant, the energy to heat the stove to cook the burger, and so on. Students are asked to think about impacts, both positive and negative, of each of the processes, products, and technologies along the way. After their diagrams are complete, students then brainstorm creative ways to reduce their footprint related to a cheeseburger. They come up with all kinds of ideas including eating organic beef, eating smaller patties or fewer burgers per week, informing themselves and others about the beef industry and its impacts, and making their own cheeseburgers. Through this exercise, students are unpacking their connections to the cheeseburger on their plate and finding tangible ways that they can make both small and large impacts on economic, social, and environmental issues.

A story from a classroom in Florida provides another exemplar. In a class of at-risk youth a teacher uses sustainability math lessons from a resource called Real World Math that teach pre-algebra and geometry — something she’s required to do — and that are aligned with the five major math textbooks used in the country to make the learning more relevant for her students. She developed a unit on habitat to provide a context to teach math skills like area and transformations. Her students explored the concept of habitat as they calculated areas of various habitats around the world for the endangered snow leopard and reflected on ways to support the survival of endangered species. This lesson also had an unexpected geography connection as they located snow leopard habitats on a world map. Ultimately, teaching math concepts like area, perimeter, and volume served as the catalyst for what became a school wide habitat project in which students made calculations to create a native plant garden. This teacher reported that she’d never seen her students more engaged and taking more ownership for their work than during this project. Also, in her words, “It wasn’t an add-on, but just a replacement of less effective materials.”

In addition to curricular manifestations of sustainability, some schools are also addressing the role of their physical buildings and the culture of the school as it relates to teaching and learning. One school I worked with in Massachusetts is committed to embedding sustainability into the classroom culture through everyday practices like turning off the lights and reusing paper — behaviors which are established at the beginning of the year through a classroom code of conduct.

EFS is Good Teaching
Teachers are busy and, as a general rule, they are not waiting around to shoehorn something into an already full curriculum, especially in a K-12 education landscape with demands such as standardized testing; the new Common Core Standards; diminishing school and district budgets; teaching students to live, work and thrive in the 21st century; and Race the Top dollars driving innovation and reform. In the face of all this, why would a district, school, or teacher want to educate for sustainability? The reality is that for teachers to include EFS in their curriculum, it has to make their lives easier, increase student achievement, and allow them to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently. There are different motivations to use the lens of sustainability as a context for learning. While there are certainly educators that do it because they think our future and the future of our students depend on it, there are also those that do it because it is good teaching.

Pedagogically sound curriculum that is engaging for students makes a teacher’s life in the classroom easier. If students are engaged, they are more likely to achieve academically, and that is something that educators care about. High quality sustainability education materials are aligned with standards, help teachers connect their students to real world issues, and support the teaching of core academic content. Sustainability education also develops students’ skills to survive and thrive in the 21st century: skills such as systems thinking, collaboration, communication, problem-solving, and global perspective. Finally, sustainability education also facilitates connections and partnerships between students and their local and global communities by providing an engaging context for service learning and project-based learning requirements.

Where Will We Be in 50 Years?
While EfS has had a slow uptake in mainstream education in the U.S., there are promising signs of momentum. In September 2010, the U.S. State Department of Education held a Sustainability Education Summit which included participants from higher education and K-12. Arne Duncan stated, “This week’s sustainability summit represents the first time that the Department is a taking a leadership role in the work of educating the next generation of green citizens and preparing them to contribute to the workforce through green job.” Educators have a central role in this. A well educated citizen knows that we must not act in this generation in ways that endanger the nex.t” Historically, the Department of Education hasn’t been doing enough in the sustainability movement. Today, I promise you that we will be a committed partner in the national effort to build a more environmentally literate and responsible society.” It is heartening to see our federal department of education talking about EfS in the context of an administration that is searching for effective models of teaching and learning and that is focused on green jobs.

We can also look at the progress that has been made in higher education as an indication of what might be working its way down to K-12 institutions. A number of networks in higher education have been established in support of sustainability education and are shifting the norms to include EFS at the institutional and curricular level. These include the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium (, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (, and the Disciplinary Associations Network for Sustainability ( In addition, the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education started a Special Study Group on EfS which represents thirty Colleges of Education from around the U.S. that are looking at how to use sustainability to prepare the next generation of teachers. Finally, there is an emerging network of K-12 associations, some of whom are already incorporating sustainability into their conference strands, journal themes, and member websites. All of these activities represent opportunities for education for sustainability to become even more widespread in the next fifty years and beyond.

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Community Works Journal: Digital Magazine for Educators

place as the context, service-learning as the strategy, sustainable communities as the goal

Joe Brooks

Written by

Founder of Community Works Institute (CWI), leader, and advocate for a community focused approach to education.

Community Works Journal: Digital Magazine for Educators

place as the context, service-learning as the strategy, sustainable communities as the goal

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