Sustainability in the Curriculum: Lots of Options

by Wynn Calder and Torrey McMillan / 11 January 2016

There is a difference between educating for sustainability and educating about sustainability.  The latter can sit largely in the theoretical realm, looking at the causes and consequences of unsustainability, and at the characteristics of more sustainable products, processes and systems.  Educating about sustainability does not necessarily ask much of us in terms of self-examination and change making (in ourselves, our institutions, our communities).  In contrast, the former is active, with an intention of creating change and change agents.  Educating for sustainability (EfS) is aimed at solving societal challenges in the present, as well as those likely to emerge in the future.  What knowledge, thinking, and skills are fundamental to educating for sustainability?  And how can interested educators transition more effectively in this direction?

Concepts and Skills

Various organizations and institutions have developed frameworks for teaching the concepts and skills they consider essential for educating students to take better care of people and the planet.  The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education has explored for over a decade the “habits of thought” of a sustainability educated person.  The Institute has reframed these into a set of nine content standards:

  1. Cultural Preservation & Transformation
  2. Responsible Local & Global Citizenship
  3. The Dynamics of Systems & Change
  4. Sustainable Economics
  5. Healthy Commons
  6. Natural Laws & Ecological Principles
  7. Inventing & Affecting The Future
  8. Multiple Perspectives
  9. Sense of Place


The US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development has also produced a set of standards for education for sustainable development (2009) spanning the K-12 years. The basic components include:

  1. Intergenerational Responsibility
  2. Interconnectedness
  3. Ecological Systems
  4. Economic Systems
  5. Social and Cultural Systems
  6. Personal Action
  7. Collective Action


Washington State, among several others, has developed a set of Integrated Environmental and Sustainability Education Learning Standards (2014) that address the following areas:

— Standard 1: Ecological, Social and Economic Systems – Students develop knowledge of the interconnections and interdependency of ecological, social and economic systems. They demonstrate understanding of how the health of these systems determines the sustainability of natural and human communities at local, regional, national and global levels.

— Standard 2: The Natural and Built Environment – Students engage in inquiry and systems thinking and use information gained through learning experiences in, about and for the environment to understand the structure, components and processes of natural and human-built environments.

— Standard 3: Sustainability and Civic Responsibility – Students develop and apply the knowledge, perspective, vision, skills and habits of mind necessary to make personal and collective decisions and take actions that promote sustainability.

Many more such frameworks exist, but the main ideas of EfS are captured above.  The scope of sustainability education is wide, so most teachers in most disciplines can find connections between what they currently teach and the content/skills of sustainability.  At the same time, there is no ‘one size fits all’.  Schools must determine their own entry points to teaching these competencies.  Departmental and school cultures will find that some concepts are better fits than others.  We don’t believe there is one right way to approach education for sustainability.

Individual and Institutional Strategies for Teaching Sustainability

At most independent schools teachers have the luxury to be somewhat flexible in what and how they teach.  Therefore adding sustainability content can be a personal choice.  Many resources exist (from websites to workshops to consultants) to assist.  We would suggest that teachers do the following:

1- Team up with like-minded colleagues from your own or other departments.  Have regular discussions about how to bring sustainability content/skills to your classes.

2- For new ideas, guides and course units, in addition to those links above, see the Center for Ecoliteracy, Creative Change: Educational Solutions, and Facing the Future.  Also, look for ways to apply systems thinking to understanding the complex, multidisciplinary content of sustainability education (see the Creative Learning Exchange) and the Waters Foundation for ideas).

3- Since EfS is strongly associated with active learning, give special attention to place-based and experiential learning approaches where feasible.

4- Rather than thinking about adding new units or content to courses, look to see what is already in the curriculum that can be taught using a sustainability lens.  The framework and questions that we use to understand the material in our curriculum can also be used to help students practice the skills and habits of thought of a sustainability thinker.  A shift in the framework and questions is often all that is needed to bring sustainability education into an existing course or unit.

Schools, if so motivated, can do more:

1- A sustainability committee is a good thing if it is taken seriously by the administration and Board.  It’s a very good thing if it is given some authority and a budget to make decisions and carry them out, or if it has key decision-makers as members.  Make sure the topic of “sustainability in the curriculum” is a regular agenda item.

2- Schools benefit from being “partners” in this process.  Partnering with students, though challenging, can be particularly rewarding.  This can mean engaging students in genuine ways in making change within the institution.  Having students involved with real decisions of the board and administration, on the committees and in the meetings will teach students more about power, decision-making, interdisciplinary thinking, and complex systems than any theoretical unit.  At a minimum: (a) give able and enthusiastic students seats on your sustainability committee (assuming you have one), (b) invite these students to annually address the BOD on sustainability matters.  At its best, the BOD would not see this as just a “nice way to engage with students” but rather as a genuine conversation worth having in its own right.

3- Schools often want to place sustainability in the science department.  There is certainly a science element to sustainability, but our quest for sustainability is, at its heart, a humanistic quest.  The planet will go on with or without us.  We are really searching for ways to sustain ourselves over the long term.  And, while technology does, and will undoubtedly, play a critical role in moving us toward a more sustainable future, we must also grapple with the social, ethical and political questions about how we live on this planet and how we live with each other.  These questions sit squarely in the humanities and social sciences.

4- Sustainability provides an excellent context for interdisciplinary work with students.  Sustainability issues sit at a natural convergence of many disciplines.  It doesn’t feel forced.  For schools interested in bringing more interdisciplinary opportunities to their students, consider organizing courses around pressing sustainability questions of the times and using these pressing questions to teach the disciplinary content that students need to understand to address them.  Would students learn exactly what they are learning now, just in a different configuration?  No.  Does this make sense for all courses and content?  Probably not.  But offering such courses, particularly with an engaged citizenship component, as integrative experiences in the senior year could provide an alternative model to keep students more engaged in their final year of high school.  Not that a school would have to wait for the senior year to offer such courses.  These could also be distinctive experiences in each grade level or in shorter chunks of time, like “Jan-term” or “May-mester” mini-courses.

Moving Forward

We know that for most schools curricular reform is a major challenge.  The majority of them are locked into a narrow model of discrete college preparatory courses, and only a minority are brave enough to step outside the box, namely some independent schools (such as White Mountain School and The Evergreen School), some public schools (such as Kellam High School), some public charter schools (such as the Academy for Global Citizenship), some expeditionary learning schools, and some essential schools.  We also know that college admissions offices are more flexible than most high schools think they are, which makes the slowness of smart innovation more frustrating still.

As hard as curricular reform can be, taking steps to integrate some sustainability education into the curriculum doesn’t have to be hard.  As noted earlier, with so many entry points across the disciplines, there is likely something you or a colleague are already doing in your classes that could readily be modified.  Or perhaps you’re ready to introduce a new unit, or to restructure an old course. Take a look at the different standards and resources described above and let these inspire your thinking about your own teaching.

Wynn Calder is consultant on sustainability to NAIS and director of Sustainable Schools LLC, and Torrey McMillan is Director of the Center for Sustainability at Hathaway Brown School.

NOTE:  This blog was initially posted on the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) website.

Written by Wynn Calder

Wynn Calder

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