A framework for teaching the world’s most important subject
You’d have thought governments would be rushing to get the issue of sustainability into the mainstream curriculum. Apparently not. Stephen Scoffham and Steve Rawlinson are looking to fill the gap.
The challenge of teaching sustainability issues
Sustainability and environmental issues are never far from the news these days. Bush fires, drought, extreme heat, flooding – these are all now acknowledged by scientists to be evidence of impending climate chaos. If a global temperature rise of less than one degree can bring about this level of disruption, what lies ahead? The dilemma for teachers is how best to address this and other sustainability issues with pupils in a way that is honest and without causing unnecessary anxiety. It’s a difficult balancing act.
Who’s taking the lead?
With so many international schools teaching one version or other of the National Curriculum for England and with Glasgow hosting COP26, there will be hopes of a lead from the UK,
However, in England, the national curriculum for primary schools still offers remarkably little guidance and even at secondary level “sustainability” is restricted to just a few subjects such as science, geography and citizenship. Similar concerns are mirrored in many other parts of the world from the United States to Australia.
Fortunately, international declarations are more encouraging. For example, UNESCO has issued both guidance and frameworks on how to teach ESD (Education for Sustainable Development). Further support comes from the United Nations where quality education is identified as one of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals that constitute a blueprint for planetary peace and prosperity.
Resources and support materials
In recent years there also been a huge increase in the resources available for schools. There is now a wealth of material available on the internet on specific topics such as climate change, biodiversity loss and plastic pollution. These provide valuable support and research material for classroom activities. Pupils too are voicing their strong support for sustainability related topics which is a further powerful reason why they need to be addressed in schools. Hopefully, the days when young people leave school saying their education hasn’t taught them anything about sustainability will now be a thing of the past.
Filling the curriculum gap
However, despite these encouraging signs in terms of teaching resource provision, there is still a dearth of advice on how to teach sustainability systematically and how to integrate it in an organised manner into existing curriculum structures. What does sustainability literacy look like and how does it vary according to different age ranges? This is something we have tried to address in our new book Sustainability Education: A Classroom Guide (Scoffham and Rawlinson 2022).
Aimed at teachers, students, managers, policy makers, governors and parents who are interested in education, this book draws on theory and research to set out a programme which spans a range of topics from Earth in Space to Global Inequalities. Nearly two hundred practical activities are discussed with links to all areas of the curriculum in a progression framework that can be adapted for particular settings. Ultimately all these different approaches aim to encourage children to think critically and creatively about the world they live in and the kind of person they want to be. This involves not only building their own sense of identity and self-worth but reflecting on how they relate to others and the impact they have on the environment.
Developing a vision
What we stress particularly is the importance of teaching in a spirit of hope and optimism. Children do not come to school to be depressed and every teacher knows that pupils learn best when they are excited and fired with enthusiasm. This doesn’t mean that we need to avoid controversial and unpalatable truths. Quite the contrary. Engaging with environmental issues – issues which pupils are already well aware of – empowers children and helps to allay many of their fears.
Teaching about sustainability needs to focus on developing a vision for the future rather than dwelling on the risks and dangers that lie ahead. Every child has the potential to contribute to creating this better world – after all it is from today’s classrooms that future leaders will arise. Establishing safe places and a learning environment where pupils have the opportunity to shine is both affirmative and empowering.
Approaching sustainability education in this light turns it from an exercise in despair to an exploration of creativity and meaning making which lies at the very heart of education. The life message which our children then take with them when they leave school is that rather than being victims of the past they can, and should be, the instigators of a better, positive and fulfilling future for themselves and the planet.
Stephen Scoffham and Steve Rawlinson
Dr Stephen Scoffham is a Visiting Reader in Sustainability and Education at Canterbury Christ University, UK and was Geographical Association President (2018-19). An established educational author and atlas consultant, Stephen has written widely on primary geography, global learning and environmental education.
Steve Rawlinson has over two decades of experience as a Principal Lecturer in Geography Education at Northumbria University and was Geographical Association President (2015-16). One of the convenors of the annual Charney Manor Primary Geography Research Conference, since 2009 Steve has also chaired the Editorial Board producing the journal Primary Geography for the Geographical Association.
Scoffham, S. & Rawlinson, S. 2022 Sustainability Education: A Classroom Guide (Bloomsbury Academic, London)
A Companion website with FREE resources and teaching ideas is available at
A Climate Change Resource Guide for Elementary School Teachers (2022)