- Schools For a Sustainable Future
synergy vol 1 issue 1
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How do we educate our children for the future?
Caroline Smith, lecturer in environmental education at the Australian Catholic University, offers her view and reveals how ACU student-teachers are learning through teaching at SFSF schools.
Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable - to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
As we approach this pivotal moment in our history, the dawn of a new millennium, educators are faced with challenges as never before. Although we cannot know precisely the nature of the world in this next and most challenging of centuries, we do know that it will be very different from the present one. We find ourselves in a period of our history like no other, where the rate of change is unprecedented, and where our impact on the earth's ecosystems - which support all life - is of increasing concern.
At the same time, many educational institutions seem to be stuck in a time warp, locked into the habits and practices of the 19th century industrial revolution. As such, they often alienate rather than enlighten our students. In secondary perhaps more than primary schools, we still have bells which ring at 9:48 precisely, so that students are forced to switch their attention off one subject and on to another, rather than being given the time and space to wrestle with and arrive at creative ways of thinking about the real problems we face to day.
As many have pointed out, however, >with the advent of the new information technologies, human learning in the 21st century will be as different from that of the 20th century as the microchip is from the valve.
Students now enrolled in schools will have adult lives stretching beyond the middle of the 21st century. Schools have a direct and important stake in the future, and - perhaps uniquely amongst professional groups - educators have a responsibility to prepare students in the most well-informed way possible for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of a life which will be very different from our own. This means educators must undertake adequate and careful preparation for the longer as well as the shorter view.
Environmental educators in particular are only too aware of the unsustainable nature of the way humans live - specifically, that our pursuit of economic wealth has led to the relentless promotion of consumption at the expense of our planet's health. Exploitation of our world's natural resources, and the use of our atmosphere and waterways as sinks for the waste we generate, are putting unprecedented pressure on our environment.
At the same time, our leaders refuse to find the foresight and vision required to bring about significant change, as their recent response to greenhouse emissions at the Kyoto Climate Summit well illustrates. The co-opting of the global ecosystem on such a large scale for the needs of just one species - our own - means that we are reaching (or indeed may have already reached) the limits of the earth's carrying capacity. We are depleting stocks of the very things that make life on earth possible - clean air and water, healthy top soil, biodiversity as well as fossil fuels and mineral resources. In short, we are living unsustainably.
As educators, we need to be in a position to help students think forward and act for a future that values and respects all life on earth - in other words, to be not only literate and numerate in the traditional sense, but ecologically literate. This means the development of a profound understanding of the natural and human systems which maintain life, as well as the value system that lies behind their degradation.
Learning for a sustainable future needs to be seen as lifelong, creative and forward thinking. We need to learn from the past, but with our eyes fixed firmly on the future.
We can be instrumental in helping our students move beyond the sort of mindset that confuses standard of living with quality of life - that says we must choose between either the environment or the economy. We must help them work towards a worldview which recognises the place of humans on the earth as one of partnership rather than domination.
Research shows that for young people, rewarding experiences in the environment at an early age play an important role in the development of positive attitudes and behaviour.
Through appropriate environmental education we learn that we are one world, that national borders are no barriers to environmental degradation, and that we are all on this journey together Projects such as Schools For a Sustainable Future (SFSF) are extremely important in the empowerment of young people, as they help them to understand the interconnectedness of all life, and to see that they can take action to live more sustainably.
In 1997 the Australian Catholic University became involved in the Schools For a Sustainable Future project through our 4th Year Environmental Education unit. The focus of this unit is Education for a Sustainable Future, and through our association with SFSF some of our pre-service teaching students were given the opportunity of working in SFSF primary schools in partnership with teachers.
Through the vision and hard work of Joseph Natoli, these pre-service teachers have been involved in a number of ways - for example, they have worked with teachers to develop waste reduction and energy audit programs, set up worm farms and developed a range of classroom activities with children from Prep to Grade 6. Their work in schools was integrated with their assessment for the unit whereby students kept a journal and reported on their involvement in the program.
All our students gained enormously from this hands-on experience in the schools. The schools also found the partnership beneficial as the student teacher was able to contribute to the class and share the load, rather than impose extra work on the teacher. Our students were excited and encouraged by the enthusiasm of the children towards understanding and caring for the environment.
This year the Environmental Education unit will be school-based and take place during our extended Field Experience program in Semester 2. We are looking forward to expanding our involvement with SFSF this year through the school-based program, and invite any schools wishing to pursue a partnership in this way to register their interest.
By being involved in environmental education both at University and in the schools, our student teachers expressed positive and hopeful views of the future, emphasising their desire to be proactive in both their teaching and their personal lives. Their level of ecological literacy increased as a direct result of working in SFSF programs. This is what we want for our young people - be they primary or tertiary students - so that they start to replace feelings of being disempowered with a sense of awareness and hope; to realise they can indeed be part of the growing global movement towards a sustainable future.
In the schools themselves, SFSF is playing a very important role by showing our children that with the business community, the wider education community and local government coming together, partnerships can work. The project is holistic, operating across the curriculum within the schools as well as providing a model of co-operation between different sections of our community. Through SFSF students learn that school is highly relevant for their future, and that people can work together towards a shared vision of a sustainable future for this beautiful planet of ours. It is a small part of the great journey we all need to embark on to participate fully - as global citizens - in the world of the next century, and to create a future worth having.
For further information or to register your school's interest in taking part in ACU's environmental teacher-training activities, please contact Caroline Smith at the ACU on (03) 9563 3666.
© 2000 Schools for a Sustainable Future