Education for Sustainability can mean so many things to different people and in different contexts. As it relates to children it is very different depending on the age and development level of a child.
Education for Sustainability (EfS) can be synonymous with Developmental Education/Environmental Education/ Inclusive Education/Peace and Nonviolence education/Personal, Social and Health Education/Citizenship Education/Post-Colonial Education and Anti-Racist, Anti-Sexist, Anti-Homophobic Education which I am going to call in a positive way, ’privilege acknowledging’ education. It is a field which has been around since the 1960s but still very much challenges not only the content but also the manner in which education is delivered today, it even calls into question the term ‘education’. I have the MSc in Education for Sustainability form London Southbank University.
In Reinventing Organisations the typical education institution which comes to mind when we consider a school is more akin to the army and jail than a modern corporate environment. Schools were designed to produce workers, to advance the colonial regimes and capitalism. While elite institutions were made for the rich (and these are primarily designed to keep the rich rich, not enlightened) most schools are places to learn how to fit into the system and this hasn’t really changed – in that we still take children out of real life contexts, which would have been family and community life, agriculture and nature and apprenticeships and place them in disconnected classrooms with members of the same or similar aged peers where they discover replicas of the real world, using books, models, videos and computers. Children are taught subjects for discrete amounts of time after which they are expected to show what they have learnt in some form of test, success in the test is the measure of the child’s ability and affects their choices and their self esteem. Children are manipulated into this system of being ‘filled up’ with information and directed tasks by veiled threats (of financial dependance, social failure, exam defeat, poor performance, disappointing teachers and parents) and rewards (gold stars, good grade, university places and careers, praise, social esteem and affection from their parents and teachers). Subjects such as arts, technical skills and sports are available but less significant than academics. Children who cannot keep up with this system are deemed failures or excluded entirely and as for some to succeed their must be some who fail the system is designed to only fit some children and families.
Although there are many wonderful teacher and heads of school the premise that some children succeed and some fail and the successes can go on to heave a good place in our socio-economic system simply isn’t sustainable. Even for the ones who succeed their self esteem is connected to external rewards and continued high performance and the world of stress and anxiety which accompanies this. The systems they are being asked to work as proof of their success are often environmentally unsustainable and morally corrupt, the successful children have not found their purpose, identity or skills, simply a way of playing the system, and it is a system they have been told will fail them in the future whenever they have been exposed to sustainability education. For the children who are unable to sit still, achieve the grades and comply they spend their formative years being labelled (however kindly) as failures, anger, despondency and depression follows. They have been taught that their limited prospects are a result of their personal failings and not of a society set up to serve the few. Those who do not benefit from racial, socio-economic, gender privilege, have impairments or a combination of these are more likely to fail in this system and so the situation of imbalance we have inherited is continued. We have a whole pharmaceutical industry engaged around medicating children so they can fit in and behaviour management training to manipulate children into complying.
The parents, teachers, doctors and therapists of children know there is something wrong, never ending arguments about homework, school avoidance, bullying, ‘challenging’ behaviour, eating disorders, self-harm, violence and suicide are powerful indicators that something is very wrong. Even the most successful, are left neurotic, wondering what they should do with themselves, who they really are. Even as we record each child’s progress in league tables and micro-mange their behaviour at every turn, we have become very distanced from what learning, experiencing, developing and growing are about. It is often easy to pin point a young child who will have problems and watch as they go unhealed through the whole ‘education’ machine and come out as expected. Of course there are exceptions and projects that try to change this, but if we are putting children in a system designed to treat them as army cadets or prisoners rather than developing humans we are going to produce young people ready for conflict and defeat. On a very broad level you see this ‘education’ project is not supposed to be ‘sustainable’.
Education for Sustainability at different Developmental Levels
Young children – below 6
At this age the observations of Montessori and Magda Gerber (RIE) stand us in good stead. No matter what technological changes we are experiencing children from conception to this age are busy mastering their bodies, attaching to their families and the ways of doing things that happen in their homes and very local community, to nature, animals and exploring at their own pace. At this age the nervous, skeletal and immune system are still being developed and moralistic, abstract ways of thinking are only just beginning at the end of this phase. Children, left unimpeded guide themselves, develop their fine and gross motor skills, make successful attachments, learn to self-regulate their emotions and sensorial experiences and come to have an affinity for being in social relationships. Children are interested in learning about the whole world, we give them positive messages about how we take care for people, animals and the planet in the context of interdependency.
We can bring children up knowing the correct names for parts of the body, an understanding that all touch should be consensual and that telling us what has happened is always a good thing. We can be there to listen to children and they will not be punished by us but protected. Knowing this can protect children from abuse.
Children 6-9 years
At this age successfully attached children are interested in maintaining and developing friendships, they are more athletic and able to explore the outdoors. Children care passionately about the relationships between things and have a strong sense of morality and fairness. At this age children can contribute to making practical and sustainable choices and being responsible but it is vital that we give them positive messages about actions they can take, use their imagination to ‘see’ the beauty in nature, the vast possibilities to relate to animals and the cosmos and to develop empathy with people they have never met. We can do this with scientific factual thinking without overwhelming them with the scale of the problems. Often children are put into positions of being responsible for a nightmare vision of the future or preceding over a utopia. Children are real people, not angels or demons and such young children do not respond well to dystopia environmental predictions or the horrors of war and want. We are not ‘wrapping them in cotton wool’ when we insulate them from some of the more negative events in our world, but giving them more time to positively attach to our world, explore with empathy and become resilient.
If children ask about sex and relationships we can answer their questions factually but only giving the minimum to satisfy their curiosity. We can show children we rest other people’s choices and lifestyles and that we care that people are protected and allowed to make choices. When we give short, honest, values based answers children are usually satisfied. If they want to know more they will ask.
Children 10-12 years
At this age children will be aware of the grimmer sides of the human story, we need to help them take meaningful actions and share stories of hope but also acknowledge their feelings and concerns about very real problems, genocide, global warming, inequitable access to resources, slavery, colonialisation, abuse, refugee, trafficking and so on. Again we don’t need to bring this to their attention as much as we need to be there as adults they can talk to when they find these things out for themselves.
This is the time to continue to be more specific not just vapour physical changes in puberty but to the emotions that are triggered by changes in relationships between people. Children will ask adults they trust for information about facts, we need to let them now we can be trusted to talk and not shame or criticise. We can introduce children to mentors who we think might be able to give children insights into experiences we do not have.
When children become teenagers and young adults they continue to need their parents to act as guides and listeners. Our job is to be available, empathetic and present. We don’t need to solve problems for our children so much as to model the values we want our children to have. Children’s concerns for their future and how they can contribute to a better world are genuine, our job is not to manage them but be there. The world has changed since we were at young, especially with social media and we do not necessarily understand the situation as well as we imagine, our job is to listen. Mentors, volunteering, practical apprenticeship work, time spent in youth camps and in youth circles can be very import in helping children to identify with their peers and adults who they can trust to make the right decisions for them.