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Environmental education in today’s classrooms

Buenos Aires
Raising awareness about the environment and the interconnection between human activities and the natural world is essential for the future of the planet. Teachers of any subject already integrate these topics into their classes.

So much is being said about Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), yet few people understand what it really means. Although its importance must not be overstated, the need to take this kind of education to today’s classrooms has to be reaffirmed.  According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), sustainable development refers to “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Education plays a crucial role in achieving this goal by fostering knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes that promote sustainable practices and address global challenges. Sustainable development requires cooperation and collaboration among countries and cultures. As a consequence, an education that promotes global citizenship fosters understanding, empathy, and a sense of responsibility toward the well-being of the entire planet must be promoted all around.

This topic is not a modern issue. The United Nations already aimed at integrating sustainable principles and practices in education in its Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) and continued striving to scale it up through the Global Action Programme in 2014. Nevertheless, it is in these present days that it emerges as a common subject in numerous ways.

ESD  is considered an umbrella term that encompasses three spheres: the economic , the environmental, and the social. Each of them is uniquely important. However, the three of them are intrinsically intertwined if we want to achieve the United Nations Agenda by the year 2030 and, what is more, let us not forget there is a goal that explicitly demands ESD in the classrooms in order to be achieved. Goal Number 4,  in its target 4.7, urges all educators to take action by stating that by the year 2030, there is an obligation to “ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.” ESD is to be understood as an integral part of Quality Education.No doubt then that if that should be so, educators have a big role to play here and all educational institutions, no matter the level, are responsible for including this into their curricula somehow.

The most important sphere of ESD educators must work on is, in my opinion, Environmental Education. As mentioned before, the three spheres are interconnected; however, working on the economic sphere first may lead to irresponsible overconsumption and that would affect our environment to a greater degree. It cannot be denied that education contributes to the development of a skilled workforce capable of driving sustainable economic growth. It encourages entrepreneurship and innovation in green industries, leading to job creation and economic stability. Notwithstanding, the consequences of working on the economic side alone may not be the desirable ones for the planet. On the other side , working on the social aspect alone is not enough, as human beings depend on the environment for most of their daily actions. The environment  provides people with opportunities to acquire skills, improve their livelihoods, and escape the cycle of poverty. Sustainable development aims to reduce poverty in a manner that preserves the environment and promotes social equity.Therefore, Environmental Education should be the kickoff of this sustainable development education that our World so much needs.

Governments, organizations, communities and even individuals must come together with only one aim in mind. Everyone has a role to play in protecting and conserving the environment for present and future generations. Yet, why is it that the environment needs so much protection? The truth is that after so many years of exponential population growth the planet is suffering the consequences these days.  Due to exhausting human activities,  the continuous emission of greenhouse gases by the burning of fossil fuels, ceaseless deforestation and industrial processes, several important issues are now taking place: The Earth’s climate is changing, the Earth is experiencing a significant loss of biodiversity with numerous species going extinct at an alarming rate, there is unsustainable use of land and full overexploitation of resources and there is great contamination all around. Unfortunately, there seems to be no way backwards whatsoever, or is there?

Surprising as it may seem, teachers’ role is essential to find the solutions to all these serious topics. By imparting Environmental Education in the classrooms, they will be promoting environmental awareness from very early stages and they will be encouraging and mobilizing individuals and communities to take actions that will lead to a more sustainable future.

Other important benefits of Environmental Education in the classrooms are the promotion of the concept of sustainable development, the opportunities it provides for interdisciplinary projects and the nurturing of Global Citizenship by connecting with local, national, and global perspectives of a same issue.

So, what does Environmental Education consist in? It consists in increasing people’s understanding and awareness of the environment and the interconnectedness between human activities and the natural world. It encompasses a wide range of educational practices and methods that aim to foster a sense of responsibility, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values necessary for individuals to contribute to environmental conservation. Environmental Education engages individuals of all ages and backgrounds  in promoting critical thinking and problem solving skills to help find a solution to these present day issues. It also involves hands-on experiences and develops a sense of responsibility towards the natural surroundings fostering a connection between individuals and nature and encouraging sustainable behaviours in their daily lives in this way. By including Environmental Education in the classroom, teachers equip students with the necessary tools to become environmentally literate and active participants in creating their own future. What is more, teachers empower them to make informed decisions, take responsible actions, and become advocates for environmental conservation and sustainability. Other important benefits of Environmental Education in the classrooms are the promotion of the concept of sustainable development, the opportunities it provides for interdisciplinary projects and the nurturing of Global Citizenship by connecting with local, national, and global perspectives of a same issue.

Now, how can all this fit in today’s classrooms through a mere language class? First of all, remember that teachers do not only teach a language, but they also teach Human Beings, and these human beings need to be aware of the circumstances that surround them. The educators of today must open their students’ eyes to what lies ahead, not in a gloomy way but in a motivating, encouraging manner so that students feel positive towards the future and feel themselves part of the solutions. There are many ways this can be done, such as by including readings that address environmental topics in language classes. ‘A Long Walk to Water’ by Parker is an excellent example that tells the story of an African girl who walks long distances every morning in search of water. Another option is field trips that put students in contact with nature and motivate them to act on its behalf. Also, the use of infographics on environmental topics that show solutions to global problems or writing exercises about biographies of people related to the environment, such as Greta Thunberg or Jane Goodall. Listening to talks with experts in the field, whether through video conferences or in-person, and watching movies like ‘The Lorax’ or documentaries like ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ by Al Gore, are ways to inspire students to act positively and raise their awareness of serious issues, involving them in sustainable practices, such as recycling or composting. The result of a project-based learning methodology is noteworthy, through which students clearly connect the social, economic, and environmental perspectives of a topic and telecollaboration. That experience involves classrooms working together across geographical and cultural borders using digital communication technologies.

Telecollaboration projects offer an inclusive, enriching, and transformative learning experience that equips students with the skills and mindset needed to thrive in our interconnected world. They allow people to become responsible global citizens, fostering a sense of solidarity and cooperation across borders.

Although the possibilities to take Environmental Education to the classrooms seem endless, there is one big drawback that must be taken into consideration: Educators in general do not have background knowledge on the subject because this is not taught in any Teacher Training College at present. As a consequence, teachers need to educate themselves. It is mandatory for them to do so. There are several ways in which to do so, either by watching videos or reading about the topics on their own or they can have access to experts’ talks , webinars or classes. It is common knowledge that an educator must be a constant learner in order to become acquainted with the new trends, the new pedagogies education needs.

To conclude, one main idea must be kept  in mind: Every small step counts. Small actions multiplied by a lot of people will make the big difference that the world needs. Educators play a crucial role to accomplish this by having the possibility of building people with a new set of values towards nature, of making students active participants in creating a more sustainable and environmentally conscious society and by creating a new generation of real agents of change.

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