Educating for Sustainability: Teaching the young ones how ‘to connect the dots’

Rethinking and redefining our education

Living in our day-to-day modern world, we tend to get distracted by powerful, overwhelming capitalistic conveniences around us (as I am writing this, I have been checking my Instagram and Facebook feed several times). It takes effort for us to look around and analyse our daily actions. We are conditioned to think more about elements of our own comfort and our family’s than to consider aspects of what we decide to buy, post, wear, and do globally. We do not usually think where our coffee comes from, why supermarkets wrap their bananas individually in plastic or who made our I-phone 7.

Educating for Sustainability Victor Nolet

It might sound like it is trivial, but I think it is the basis of a great deal of destruction on Earth, the loss of our connection to the world we are living in. We will never change the way we treat our environment if we never start to look and notice things around us as an inseparable entity from our existence on earth. The question is, how do we make more people see this inseparability?

Reflecting on this notion of inseparability, I thought of my beautiful archipelagic home country, Indonesia. One critical issue in the country’s education model is the separation of learning at school and understanding how the world works (e.g. some people are aware of the importance of waste management as they were once taught at school, but in real life, they may still throw plastic rubbish in the street or river). This experience made me question the way we educate that may tend to undermine the ability to ‘connect the dots’. We need to pass on skills and knowledge to the young ones to critically analyse the inseparability of their actions from what happens in the world.

It is, therefore, crucial to start consciously rethinking and redefining what we want to achieve in our education. We often associate education with schooling, doing exams, getting a degree to gain qualifications to get a well-paying job, but do we want to dedicate education merely to economic growth? Or perhaps we can educate to tackle social and environmental challenges in this fast-changing world?

An alternative proposed by Victor Nolet (2016) is educating for sustainability which promotes sustainability worldview: the ability to see and engage with the world by considering the impacts of our decisions and behaviours on others now and in the future.

Now, how do we educate the young ones to possess a sustainability worldview? I think making subjects relevant to daily life, developing thinking skills by enhancing reading and listening capacity, communicating our values, beliefs, and opinions and collaborating, towards shared goals dedicated to the betterment of our well-being and the environment around us are useful to help the young generations start thinking about making change in the world.

It is also essential to note what David Orr (1994) suggests that the way learners learn is as important as the course content. We should not rely on the classroom as the only place where learning can occur. Place-based Education by Gregory Smith (2002) is an excellent example to explore this idea, whereby, learners can gain their knowledge to restore healthy ecosystems by converting some abandoned ponds into a park and nature centre.

Language teachers can also integrate the sustainability views in lessons and teaching methodology. One example that has been applied in English teaching is Content and Language Integrated learning CLIL. Using this method in a formal school, teachers teach a language through the content of their subjects (Science, Geography, etc.), like the one in Melbourne Biodiversity and CLIL; where a school combines learning Japanese with biodiversity and science education innovatively. Meanwhile, in an informal language school, where the curriculum is less rigid, teachers can tailor their lessons on the required language points in the context of sustainability. Some lesson plan and worksheet examples in this informal language teaching context can be retrieved from Greening ESL or British Council Sustainability Lessons.

My thinking development in integrating sustainability into language teaching is a journey that began when Dr Joanne Tippett gave her inspiring talk about what we can do to help this sustainability notion work through RoundView. Another pivotal point was my valuable learning experience in a Chevening workshop on sustainable futures held by Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures highlighting that we, human beings collectively, are technologically and scientifically ready to shift to a more sustainable path in conducting our activities on earth, but the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we have the political, sociological and cultural will to change. It is more challenging to make people change their environmental public policy and implement it in a country where its policymakers, politicians, academics, and business people do not share a similar worldview.


Reconstructing our view of morality

We often associate morality with respecting others’ rights by (e.g. not committing a crime), but we do less so with being less environmentally damaging. We tend not to consider our day-to-day ecologically harmful actions on earth when judging our morality because it is the fundamental rights of the distant, invisible future generations that we try to respect. Jeffrey Burkhardt (1989) views the concept of morality in sustainability as our responsibility to ensure that the rights of future generations are not harmed.

Bearing this in mind, we will think it is a constant challenge to make ourselves aware of the consequences of our daily decision making towards the changes of our present and future earth’s ecological conditions. In talking about ecological sustainability, Wendell Berry in David Orr (1992) emphasises “We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do; We must do more for ourselves and each other” which I interpret as, our tendency to over-consume as we get wealthier has given us the illusion that we are much better people than those living sustainably in the middle of a rainforest of, for example, Papua, but maybe we all need to question this.



Burkhardt, J . (1989). The Morality behind Sustainability. Journal of Agricultural Ethics. 2 (1), 113-128.

Nolet, V (2016). Educating for Sustainability. New York: Routledge. 10-12.

Orr, D (1994). Earth in Mind. Washington: Island Press. 14-15.

Orr, D (1992). Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. New York: State University of New York Press. 11-40.

Smith, G. (2002). Place-Based Education: Learning to Be Where We are. Phi Delta Kappan. 584-594.