Education for Sustainability: Making the World Whole

This post originally appeared on the ASCD Whole Child Blog and is reposted here by permission.

Last spring I had an epiphany. While working with middle school students on a field-based exploration of the diverse ecosystems on a nature preserve adjacent to their school, the students were recalling the animal species they had observed in each of their assigned ecosystems. The students expressed surprise at how many species occurred in multiple ecosystems. Now, the wood frog doesn’t say to itself, “hey, I’m leaving the forest and entering the riverbank”—it’s a continuous, interconnected whole to all of the other living things with whom we share this planet. But somehow the kids had missed this and the following struck me: We took the world apart—so we could understand it, so we could explain it, and so we could teach it—but we never made it whole again. 

Since that day I’ve thought a lot about it. For deep learning to happen, students must be able to transfer their understanding from one situation or place and apply it in a new and unfamiliar setting. But in so many cases this is not what is happening. Curriculum is being designed to cover infinite content, rather than being organized around big ideas or concepts that will facilitate this transfer of understanding, yet we wonder why students can’t connect the dots. There is a frenzied focus on math and literacy at the expense of all other disciplines—but without science, social studies, or the arts, what is there to count or communicate about?

I believe that education for sustainability offers a remedy to the disconnected, disjointed state of teaching and learning.

Education for Sustainability

I first learned about education for sustainability (EFS) through my work as a curriculum specialist at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. Education for sustainability is a lens that considers environmental and ecological integrity, economic vitality, and social equity. Building on big ideas such as systems thinking, interdependence, and community, EFS uses place-based education as the integrating context, service-learning as a major strategy, and building sustainable communities as the goal.

Shelburne Farms is a nonprofit organization educating for a sustainable future. Our campus is a 1,400-acre working farm, forest, and National Historic Landmark. We believe that if students have a deep knowledge of and sense of their place, if they understand the interconnectedness of the world, and if they have firsthand experience in making a difference in their community, then they will become civically engaged citizens involved in creating sustainable communities. The Sustainable Schools Project (SSP) is a Shelburne Farms program that works with schools and teachers to implement this framework.

Big Ideas of Sustainability

Because sustainability is complex, we break it down into its “big ideas” (PDF).  These concepts, derived from ecology, are ways of understanding sustainability, and can be used to create developmentally appropriate EFS curriculum. Some of the big ideas of sustainability that Shelburne Farms’ Sustainable Schools Project has identified include: community, interdependence, diversity, cycles, systems, change over time, equity, and limits. These big ideas, aligned with an essential question and enduring understandings, can form the foundation of a curriculum that teaches for student understanding and a sustainable future.

Putting the Pieces Together

At times it seems we have lost sight of the point of education by myopically focusing on the minutiae of content rather than its purpose: to help us understand the world and each other. This fragmented understanding conceivably plays a role in the dire ecological situation we find ourselves facing at present—when we don’t understand the fundamental interconnectedness of everything it allows us to make shortsighted decisions about resource use, ignore the consequences of our actions, and to turn our back on others in our global or local community.

Since my epiphany that day last spring, I have been puzzling over how to put these pieces together. I think the answer may, in part, lie in the way we think about and design learning experiences.

That field exploration of the nature preserve’s ecosystems had a few of the elements right. It was set in a real-world place-based context, and was ripe for the opportunity to explore interdependence.  But we approached it from the wrong direction, with misguided objectives resulting in fragmented understanding. If instead of focusing on the parts and pieces, our emphasis had been on supporting students’ understanding of interdependence, we would have helped students recognize not only these specific ecosystems and their communities, but also make sense of the complicated web of life on our planet and the consequential implications for stewardship and citizenship.

If we had presented students with a series of essential questions, we might have nurtured understanding of this big idea.

  • How do different ecosystems depend on one another?
  • How is the built world connected to the natural world?
  • So what?  Now what?

If we had provided students with an opportunity to discover an authentic need in this nature preserve (or neighborhood, or community), and a chance to work with a community partner to improve the quality of life for the living things there, they would have realized their power to make a difference.

I believe that education for sustainability offers us an opportunity to make the world whole for our students, and to nurture the development of citizens engaged in building sustainable communities.

Emily Hoyler, Special Projects

Posted by Emily Hoyler

October 10, 2014


This resonated so deeply with me. Thank you for shedding light on the What, So What and Now What of EfS. Our education lens must be steered towards these essential questions and Big Ideas if only to reestablish our sense of belonging to each other and shared humanity.

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