How to Teach Sustainability to School Students

Teenagers and young people really can be the agents of change the world needs when it comes to sustainability. Fortune Magazine, for example, recently told the story of how global giant UPS was started by two teenagers and a bike back in 1907, and how the company went back to being eco-friendly with its e-bike delivery service in Hamburg back in 2012 (a service which has now expanded to many more cities). Today, I’ve invited Claire Maguire from online student magazine, The Day, to describe some great ways in which teachers can teach sustainability to their students.

Accompanying podcast episode:

How do we teach sustainability to school students?

World news is dominated by reports of extreme flooding, droughts, forest fires and severe storms. It can seem overwhelming for young people; the generation who will increasingly shoulder responsibility for tackling climate change. 

What can educators do to empower young people to take positive action?

With more global sustainability events happening around the world every day, it’s the perfect time to bring students into the conversation

Whether it’s discussing world events such as COP27 or confidently tackling conversations around climate disasters such as floods and fires, there’s no rulebook on how to teach sustainability to school students. But there are a number of approaches that can be effective to really engage young people to take positive action.

The complexities and political implications of sustainability can make it a challenging topic to teach. By following this guide, we hope sustainability can be accessible for your classroom, and you can confidently learn how to teach sustainability to school students in a way that inspires and empowers your class to really engage with these critical issues.

Fortunately, there are so many resources out there to help you tackle these topics. 

Online newspaper for schools, The Day, has a team of journalists covering the big issues behind the headlines in climate change in a child-friendly way that aids healthy debate and discussion in the classroom. For example, The Day’s free Build the Change resource, developed in collaboration with the LEGO Group, focuses on a sustainability news topic every week and challenges pupils to come up with creative solutions to environmental issues.

Keep it relevant

Students are much more likely to pay attention if something affects them directly, or it’s something they’ve heard about already. By using the news as a guide, it can transform conversations that might take place at the dinner table or on the bus into a learning experience. From discussions about veganism to debates on electric cars, by honing in on current issues, students are more likely to engage with topics that affect their everyday lives. As sustainability is so broad and intricate, by focusing on specific issues, it can be easier to teach and to digest as a student. 

By using the news as a starting point, real-world events become an opportunity for learning. It might be learning that the eighth billionth person will be born and thinking about if the world can cope with the volume of people that really gets your class thinking. Or it might be discovering Sir David Attenborough receiving a knighthood for his sustainability efforts that engages a child who is particularly fond of the English broadcaster and biologist. 

Let them have an opinion

Young people are going to be the most affected by the impact of sustainability issues. Encouraging them to form their own point of view on different issues is the best way to really ignite a passion for sustainability.

With the “you decide” feature of the Build the Change resources, students are posed with a thought-provoking question and an option to agree or disagree with the statement.

As sustainability issues are highly debated anyway, it offers the chance for students to work out where they stand on key issues affecting our planet.

Is climate change history repeating itself? Can children save the world? Can the planet cope with 8 billion people? Presenting students with questions like these is a great way to teach sustainability to school students as it allows them to think beyond the news and really analyse the facts, evidence and information in front of them.

You can set up a whole class debate or put students into groups to challenge each other’s way of thinking, and see if they can form a judgement on the topic.

Slot sustainability into the school day

83.1% of educators wish sustainability issues were more broadly implemented across the curriculum*. Time is a luxury most teachers don’t have, and with a jam-packed curriculum having to take priority, sustainability education tends to have to take a backseat.

Yet 45.4% of educators believe sustainability education is very important, and if we want to help students become agents of change, we need to give them the tools to make a difference.

When sustainability lends itself naturally to different subjects across the curriculum, it can be threaded through different lessons over the course of the day. For example, you might learn about passive houses in a science lesson, or rising sea levels might be a conversation topic in a geography class.

The Build the Change weekly resources cover sustainability from a range of angles and allow you to pick and choose activities. This means it can be incorporated into lessons or the school day whenever makes the most sense. You might decide to weave this Build the Change resource on how smart computers can save forests into a technology lesson, or get your science class fascinated by the idea of lab-grown hamburgers. Yet it can also fit nicely into short pockets of the day, with short bursts of activity suited to form time or after lunch.

Source ready-to-go resources

We know lesson planning can be the bane of educators’ lives. Sustainability is a huge topic that young people have lots of questions on, so planning lessons can be time-consuming. But there are a whole host of engaging sustainability resources out there that you can simply get up on the interactive whiteboard or print off and use with your class.

The Build the Change Tuesday worksheets are free, no-prep, no-fuss resources written by journalists and educators that can be used instantly to bring children up to speed on sustainability issues and enable them to voice their opinions. Members of The Day can also receive other climate resources as part of their subscription, from whether economic growth is preventing us from meeting climate targets to whether the world has done enough to prevent climate change. 

Think practical and simple

Inspiring the next generation of changemakers starts by getting them to think about how they would tackle these issues. That doesn’t mean students need to solve global warming, but they can begin to explore solutions and ways of living that cause less harm to the planet, such as creating a habitat for endangered animals to survive.

The aim is to engage young people in the issues and inspire them to feel they can make a difference. By giving them practical design, problem-solving or creative challenges to address sustainability issues, they can begin to feel empowered.

Every Build the Change Tuesday article features a hands-on Build the Change challenge related to the news story. For example, an article about rising sea levels inspires students to think about how humans might one day live underwater and challenges them to build an underwater habitat using craft materials or LEGO® bricks. These ideas can be shown to real-life sustainability figures by entering the LEGO competition, where a photograph of students’ ideas just needs to be submitted to the gallery. You can download this pack to find out more. 

Empowering your students

When you’re thinking about how to teach sustainability to school students, the most important thing to remember is that you’re preparing them to make a real difference. 

Igniting a passion for sustainability where they understand the impact of human actions and genuinely want to make a difference is the best way to give students the tools to become agents of change. How does what they read in the news affect their local community, their home life, or their school?

Put learning into practice

When you’re thinking about how to teach sustainability to school students, think about your school. How sustainable is it? How can you make it more eco-friendly?

Giving students projects that can enable a change right away is a fantastic way to put their passion for sustainability into practice.

Could they create a rooftop nature garden on the school grounds? Or think of ways their school building could be more eco-friendly? 

You can use students’ ideas to put real-life projects to improve your school’s sustainability by entering The Day’s competition with the LEGO Group. Winning entries can win £2,000 for their school to put towards these projects and take the next step in sustainability. 

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK). Richard is the award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management: 45 Secrets That All High School Teachers Need to Know

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