Teaching Sustainability in Schools

Guest blog by Shawna Spencer, a recovering educator. With years of teaching in the public school system behind her, she now uses her English and Education degree and writing skills as a freelance copy and content writer. As a mother, she’s still educating, as she strives to teach her own kids to be more conscientious, kinder, and sustainable.

Past Sustainability Educational Practices

Everyone in my generation can remember the posters, the assemblies, the lunchtime presentations. But, most of all, it was the slogan: “The 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” always accompanied by the triangle of arrows. I, for one, probably rolled my eyes after hearing it for the umpteenth time. Scoffing at the poster, I’d mutter, “I get it…my milk jug goes in the bin.” You better believe I was introduced to sustainability through this practice, though. And so were all of my peers. We became a huge cohort of children who would grow into recycling young adults and, later, adults who would at least acknowledge better practices.

Teaching sustainability was not problematic. My parents never stormed into the principal’s office demanding the curriculum be changed to support their views. In fact, it is very likely that through sustainability teaching at school my brother and I reinforced this healthy practice in our own home. To this day, my family is disgusted at the thought that there are still states in our nation that don’t embrace recycling.

teaching sustainability: the political issue

Today, the topic is no longer the 3 Rs. It is climate change. And, undoubtedly, you know there are people that don’t believe in it. Now, there are parents coming off the benches, indicating that this is not an acceptable topic for the classroom. And, if it does get shared, that it is done so as a form of opinion with the counter belief represented, as well.

The political minefield of the classroom has become an extremely difficult area to navigate in general, but especially when teaching sustainability. Although political alliances are often set aside, when concepts are taught that fall into one side of the political spectrum, the conversation is contested or left out. 

It is possible that in many classrooms across our nation, climate change is being taught as an opinion, if addressed at all. Instead of a whole generation growing up with the indoctrination of sustainable practices – as mine was, to a degree – they are either introduced to it outside the classroom, or, worse, being convinced that it is an opinion of which you can be for or against. Those with parents that are protesting teaching sustainability are largely going to believe climate change is mere opinion. 

Trees will continue being cut at an alarming rate; factories will continue pumping out disgusting smog; gas hogging vehicles will be driven; and the ice sheets will continue to melt.

indirectly teaching sustainability through valuable learning skills

To combat this, schools need to dive headfirst not into particular topics that will alert the rabblers who want to contest everything that threatens their ignorance, but instead into teaching students how to evaluate resources. More than ever, young adults and children need the skillset to actively receive information. When they watch the news, read an opinion editorial, and scroll through beloved social media, they need a strong spidey sense of those outlets that are dishing out conspiracy and sensationalism.

Here’s what we can do, as parents, educators, and mentors, to help the littles in our lives become a pool of strong, sustainable citizens.

teach them about media bias

Ironically, everyone will agree with this stance. In our current cultural climate, every liberal wants to shut down those on the right, and every conservative thinks that the news sources on the left are spreading agendas. Therefore, they will want their kids to be knowledgeable so that the “other” doesn’t sneak in propaganda that somehow infiltrates the thinking of the children. What teaching about media bias does, however, is teach students that neither side is coming to the table objectively.

There are many infographics that compare top news sources to show, on average, where each falls on the continuum of political perspective. Below are a few examples.



show students how to compare multiple sources

Anyone who has ever tried this exercise can certainly be surprised by the vast discrepancies from one headline to the next. The same encounter can stir up controversy in so many ways.

  • Tone
  • Word choice and charged or sensitive vocabulary preferences
  • Spliced interviews/speech taken out of context
  • Video/photography sequence

All of these writing tactics can misrepresent the truth and, furthermore, mislead the viewer.

practice and teach empathy

The truth of the matter is that raising children who are kind, considerate, and empathic does far more than any other suggestion. If kids and students are met with the challenge of being their best selves at our lowest form – as a human being – everyone will benefit. Considerate children will want to prevent pollution because they know that plants, animals, and people will benefit. Students that learn to “walk in another’s shoes” will ultimately be able to judge the suffering of those on the news for themselves without the biased commentary that accompanies it. 

The pain and suffering of humanity is not something that needs to be taught. It is a visceral reaction that even young children can sense. Recognizing the consequences of our negative actions is a huge start, but then follows the recognition of the amazing rewards of our positive contributions. At the greatest advantage will be children who learn they can make a difference by developing skills in putting others first.

Employing these tactics will not only bring to light the truths of the damages we are causing our planet, but so many other truly imperative concepts. If it is the parents that want to teach their kids what they believe to be truth, then we need to cash in on teaching students to think for themselves and get in tune with humanity. We at least owe people and the planet that.

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