An education for the future

“We should prioritise children’s futures by designing an education system that promotes the natural world and our sustainable place within it.” Jenny Rhodes, a former primary school teacher, reflects on the challenges the children of today face and proposes a new, environmentally focused curriculum -- which could be key to responding to these challenges. 

An image of a school classroom
An image of a school classroom
Jenny Rhodes

Today’s children have a challenge on their hands: they are the future guardians of the Earth, which is facing many threats. They have the right to know how to protect their home. What should their education look like, to develop this vital knowledge?

Historically, adults have decided how they want life and society to be, prioritising human ‘needs’ over everything else. The Earth has been plundered to bring it about, and subsequent generations taught to continue it. We must finally grasp that endless economic growth ultimately damages us: the planet we exploit is our support structure. 

The coronavirus pandemic has proved that we humans aren’t so clever after all. It’s now critical to change our often damaging relationship with animals, which can allow zoonotic diseases to emerge. And we should prioritise children’s futures by designing an education system that promotes the natural world and our sustainable place within it.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals include Affordable and Clean Energy; Responsible Consumption and Production; Climate Action; and Life Below Water and on Land. To achieve these, we need a ‘curriculum for people and planet’ which would be globally relevant and usable.

Essential to attaining this are the voices of young people. Thankfully, many young people are already very aware and committed to the cause, and know what they need to do. A new curriculum, which should be based on self-determination and participation, could include: 

  • Learning about the environmental impact of their own school building and taking responsibility for the building and the grounds. This could involve carrying out energy audits, researching insulation and renewable energy, being involved in energy capture projects, for example, the school turbine, or water conservation projects with rainwater capture systems. Ultimately, an understanding of the science and technology of sustainability would be achieved.

  • Determining practical ways to enhance the local area. This would not only be learning about neighbourhoods, but also campaigning and initiating improvement projects, for example, litter and pollution reduction schemes, enhancing routes for cyclists and pedestrians, planting more trees, creating a school travel plan and participating in cycle training.

  • Learning about the origins of bought products, and what happens to them after they are consumed. This includes learning about the environmental impact of using our finite resources, reducing and managing school waste with recycling and composting systems and repairing and repurposing items in a workshop or sewing room.

  • Outdoor learning involving observing, understanding, respecting and enjoying the environment and wildlife. This would connect the pupil to their world and allow them to learn about ecosystems and food chains firsthand. 

  • Understanding food production, maintaining a school garden, cooking healthy food and assessing the impacts of eating meat. The pupil would have the opportunity to investigate how food gets from farm to fork, following a product from being grown or reared to being manufactured, sold and eaten. 

  • Learning how to look after mental and physical wellbeing. This could be through exercise, creativity, collaboration or being rooted in the local environment.

All aspects of science are here, as well as the humanities subjects and Personal, Social and Health Education – of course, literacy and numeracy are also integral. Some of this is already touched on in schools, but not given enough time or resources or is too theoretical. More practicality would provide life lessons and encourage independence. All learners would see tangible results and this would increase motivation and commitment.

Finally, we should reconsider what we mean by ‘quality of life’. Success should not be measured in GDP, nor in exam results, but in societal wellbeing. And educators should be thinking, ‘What do we want our world to be like in ten years time, and how do we make a plan to get there?’

The OECD paper, ‘The Future of Education & Skills: Education 2030’ puts it well: “We are committed to helping every learner develop as a whole person, fulfil his or her potential and help shape a shared future built on the well-being of individuals, communities and the planet. Children […] will need to abandon the notion that resources are limitless and are there to be exploited; they will need to value common prosperity, sustainability and well-being. They will need to be responsible and empowered, placing collaboration above division, and sustainability above short-term gain.”