From education to employment

Educating for a Greener Future: How to Teach Sustainability

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley

In this article, Zoe writes about how everyone in the education sector, from schools and pupils to publishers, can be agents for sustainability.

Empowering Young Minds for Sustainability

Young people are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, and upholding their rights to a clean, healthy, and sustainable planet should be at the heart of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This was the rallying cry of UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director Kitty van der Heijden in the lead-up to COP28.

More and more teachers have been telling us that they want to bring sustainability into the classroom but aren’t sure how, especially without worsening climate anxiety. As a publisher for school-age children in over 150 countries, our expertise is in developing and designing educational resources to prepare the scientists, writers, humanists, historians, and mathematicians of the future. From helping schools and teachers to consider how to minimize waste, to exploring set topics through the lens of environmental impact, we can empower learners to play an active role in designing a more sustainable future for themselves. 

Whilst we should not shift responsibility for solving this crisis onto the shoulders of future generations, hope abounds in the resourcefulness and motivation demonstrated by young people around the world.

Fostering Innovation: Students Leading the Change

As Director of Sustainability at Oxford University Press, I was asked to judge submissions made by over 600 young people to the Climate Change Challenge organised by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School earlier this year. With proposals as varied as drip irrigation, using fungi to repress mosquito populations, and new methods to produce sustainable and affordable fertiliser, the submissions served to reaffirm my confidence that young people are key to unlocking solutions for the world’s biggest challenges.

At OUP, we’re committed to operating sustainably and have established plans to reduce our impacts on climate and nature. However, I would argue that our biggest opportunity to make a positive impact on people and planet comes from our commitment to publishing with purpose — including through our educational content for younger learners.

For example, we worked with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to prepare the PISA 2025 Science Framework – launched earlier this year – that will help policy makers understand the capabilities and progress of 15-year-olds worldwide.

At the heart of the Framework is the call to shape science-literate citizens who can make informed decisions in their day-to-day lives and advocate for decisions and action informed by science, including for environmental change, and with a renewed emphasis that future skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and communication are key.

Nurturing Eco-Conscious Minds: The Oxford International Curriculum

We’ve brought this same approach to a new sustainability theme for the Oxford International Curriculum, an interdisciplinary curriculum that integrates science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics (STEAM).

Sustainability has been added for existing and new schools offering the Curriculum for April 2024, equipping students to grapple with the challenges that characterize the shift toward sustainable living on planet Earth while strengthening their connections to their local community and to nature.

In developing this theme alongside a group of education experts from around the world, I was excited by some of the practical ideas to make sustainability relevant and engaging in the classroom — for example:

  • By witnessing and understanding more about the operational side of their school, students can become active participants in the decision-making process for a more sustainable future. For example, by explaining to students how the school purchases and uses resources, and creates waste, can empower them, as well as being useful for teachers and operational staff.
  • As energy prices become more volatile, and global temperatures make school conditions more difficult, schools can use the opportunity to become more resilient and teach students how to live a low energy life. There is an opportunity to review your school’s energy system together with students in maths and physics lessons, to explore ways in which you can reduce consumption, considering cooling systems, lighting, computer use, cooking etc.
  • Educating our students about the connection between what they eat, their own health, and the health of the environment can be a powerful way to improve the school’s environmental performance. For example, by increasing plant-based choices and putting vegetarian options first. Or by connecting students to their region, introducing them to local foods, and teaching them to prepare regional recipes.

All of us working in education, from publishers, to schools, to pupils, have a chance to be agents for sustainability. We must take this opportunity to empower young people and make a positive impact for the future of our world.

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley, Director of Sustainability at Oxford University Press

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