Today's children are the citizens and decision-makers of the future. How can you educate the new generation in such a way that it offers hope and prospects for action in a world with overwhelming problems such as deadly viruses, decline in biodiversity and climate change?
The scientists of the Education and Learning Sciences (ELS) group say it is through active and action-oriented learning for children. Let pupils get to work on a theme on their own. For example, let them work together to find out how to build green schoolyards or install solar panels on the roof. By involving children in the thought process, they come up with creative solutions and learn to look critically. In addition, the pupils gain more ownership of the subject, which makes it more permanent. 'Offering children a perspective on how to act is very important', says Arjen Wals, personal professor at ELS. 'Then they discover that there are alternatives. In this way you prevent a feeling of powerlessness and show that change is possible.'
Wals propagates the so-called whole school approach, an approach for which he, together with colleagues from Malta and the United Kingdom, has laid the foundations. It is an integral approach to sustainability in education with attention to curriculum content, type of learning, relationship between school and school environment, ecological footprints, healthy school and professional development of teachers. 'So it’s not just about lessons on sustainability, but also about the connection between the various domains and aspects, both inside and outside the school', says Wals.
Relationship with the environment
According to him, the relationship with the environment is crucial in the lessons. 'Involve the local bicycle mechanic or the local energy cooperative in the lessons. By involving the surroundings, you reduce the gap between thinking about sustainability and putting it into practice.'
A good example Wals mentions is the 'Happy Meal' workshop for secondary schools in particular, which was developed by ELS researchers. Students are put to work in groups with one of the ingredients of MacDonalds' Happy Meal: the sandwich, the fries, the burger, the soft drink or the toy. They then work with two questions: what is in it, and where does it come from? They discover how many kilometres have been covered for the meal, what the nutritional value of the meal is, under what working conditions the toys are made, that children only play with them for a very short time and that it soon ends up in the waste stream. The third question focuses on the action perspective: can you now put together a Happy Meal that will make us all happy? What criteria do you have for this? Then they will critically design, try out, test and also calculate what such a Happy Meal 2.0 will cost and examine to what extent everyone in the chain can become happy.
Meaningful and hopeful
The question is often asked whether education meets the demands of the economy. Arjen Wals says: 'We ask the question whether education meets what the earth is asking for. Young people are increasingly saying that education does not prepare them well for a world that is struggling with climate change, increasing inequality and loss of biodiversity. Schools are looking for ways to involve their pupils in these issues in a meaningful and hopeful way. ELS helps them with research into the learning processes, tools and learning environments that make this possible.'
ELS has been advising school networks such as Globe and EcoSchools (now 51,000 schools in almost 70 countries) for many years, thus helping to improve the quality and increase the impact of sustainability education. The latter is also reflected in the emergence of green school playgrounds, healthy school canteens, schools with 'repair cafes', green day-care centres, professionalisation programmes around sustainability in education, and cross-curricular education around, for example, the Sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs). ELS hosts the UNESCO Chair in Social Learning for Sustainable Development and thus influences UNESCO's international programme in the field of SDG 4 (Quality Education), in particular in the field of Education for Sustainable Development, Climate Change Education and Global Citizenship Education.