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Educating For Sustainability

We’re all guilty of it — leaving lights on in a room we’re not using, tossing the plastic water bottle we bought into a non-recyclable-trash bin. No matter how many books, articles, and documentaries are made about the environmental crisis facing our planet, we still frequently fail to do what would be in the best interest of our planet and, consequently, ourselves.

I used to think the problem lay with our behavior, our inability, as Gandhi so elegantly put it, “to be the change we want to see in the world.” But after attending a workshop by the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education, organized by parent Michele Israel of PS 107 in Brooklyn, I learned that the source of the problem is not our behavior but our thinking, and that’s what the institute is trying to change with children in grades K-12.

Aleidria Lichau, the lead sustainability educator at the Cloud Institute, illustrated how our thinking was at the heart of the problem by making the parents and educators attending the workshop play a form of musical chairs. As the chairs became more scarce, each of us developed strategies to cope. Some shared a chair, others found other places to sit; but none of us thought, as the institute would say, “upstream,” to actually solve the dilemma we were in, for example, not letting the music play in the first place. The institute conducts similar games with students to help them understand how their thinking is driving their behavior and to demonstrate that the significant environmental problems we face cannot be solved with the same level of thinking we’ve used to create them.

How the Cloud Institute might become involved with your school would depend on your school’s financial resources and how interested your principal is in incorporating Education for Sustainability into the curriculum. The Cloud Institute reports that for most of the schools it works with, “the timeline for producing evidence of EfS in thinking and practice throughout the organization will vary from 3-5 years on average. After that, it becomes a process of continuous improvement and growth.” In other words, the work the institute is doing to radically change our attitudes and habits of mind that have led us to our present situation is profound and cannot be accomplished in a matter of weeks. However, if your school isn’t able to make such a longterm commitment, the institute can still be brought in to conduct 2-4-day workshops with administrative staff and teachers to raise their awareness about Education for Sustainability, so that they can begin to incorporate some of its principles into their classrooms and the general school culture. The institute is more than willing to work with the particular needs and desires of a school.

During the workshop I couldn’t help but think that the educational model the Cloud Institute is promoting seems to have little in common with the one the city Department of Education has adopted with its emphasis on test scores, not just for students but educators as well. Teaching and studying for tests cultivates the same non-questioning attitudes and regimented thinking that the Cloud Institute would argue has gotten us into our present mess. While it’s important that children be able to read and write and have basic math skills, in the end, what are these abilities worth if the one home we have becomes increasingly uninhabitable for the majority of the species living on it, including ourselves? Qualities such as leadership, creativity, and a sense of community might be impossible to measure with a test, but they are much more important to the survival of our planet than a child’s ability to multiply and divide numbers. The city needs to expand its definition of what constitutes a great education and devote the same amount of time and resources that it puts into test scores into creating a curriculum that fosters the character traits and “out-of-the-box” thinking our children will need to create a just and sustainable planet. The Department of Education, under the new leadership of Cathie Black, should partner with the Cloud Institute to develop a curriculum that, as the institute promises, “inspires young people to think about the world, their relationship to it, and ability to influence it in an entirely new way.”

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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