Part of our everyday

Associate Professor Debra Bateman is the Deputy Dean, Learning and Teaching of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. She is a passionate writer and thinker in the area of Futures Thinking and has extensive experience in curriculum development in schools and Universities. Debra argues that the inclusion of sustainability in curriculum is a no brainer.

It is easy to get caught up in the arguments of how to teach sustainability in schools, and where it sits within a volatile and unstable educational policy context. Amidst a landscape that demands greater focus on the basics of learning, described as literacy and numeracy, and more checking of compliance through the application of simplistic and flawed benchmarking and testing, it is increasingly difficult for teachers to feel the appropriate level of autonomy to decide what is most relevant for their students’ learning. The purpose of this piece then is to provide a through line, and enable teachers to reclaim the pedagogical space to develop strong sustainable (among other) perspectives in their day to day curriculum of the classroom.

Sustainability is about continuance. In a world where so many things are disposable, and change is part of the dominant discourse of western culture, a great start for thinking about the meaning of continuities is to identify things around us that have not changed over time. For example, the natural rhythms of sunrise and sunsets continue without change. Bickering over land and resources has continued throughout the ages. Within cultures, there are many traditions and rituals which have continued without change. Yet, in a world of change how are some things sustained and others not? What are the choices, values and commitments that embody the types of action and acceptance that enable things to remain the same? How can those same reflections and principles be applied more broadly?

Who we are and where we are

When I first began teaching, we were inducted into thinking that environmental education or learning about principles of sustainability were things that needed to be learned in other places. I remember our annual pilgrimage in the middle and senior primary school levels to the Gould League, where children measured their household rubbish, and learned about changing cities and rural places.

While I still have the wonderful publications from that organisation on my bookshelf, and many of the principles remain important, as I’ve researched more in the area, taught across different settings, and the Gould League closed its premises, I feel more committed to the idea that sustainability needs to be part of who we are and where we are.

I don’t think it matters how it is taught, but that it is taught. And, like Indigenous perspectives, sustainability is not something ‘other’. It is part of both our history and our futures. It is soulful and practical and part of a shared commitment that each of us have a role to play in being responsible and ethical in our sharing of resources. It is part of every activity that we do, and every curriculum design, thinking about how we use time and people, and how our energies are put towards shaping powerful, preferable and purposeful futures.

I don’t think it matters how it is taught, but that it is taught. And, like Indigenous perspectives, sustainability is not something ‘other’. It is part of both our history and our futures.

Practical sustainable curriculum

In my own classrooms and in my role as a teacher, I’ve used various strategies to develop strong sustainable perspectives in my classroom. Through a curriculum leadership role, in one school, we developed our whole school concert around the Wonder of Water Through Time. The concert became an expression of the key learnings throughout the school, journeying from our preps exploring how their local environment had changed along the Merri Creek and the impacts for Indigenous communities, to our Grade Ones and Twos understanding the introduction of industrial times along the same landscape. Our Grade Threes and Fours inquired into how local communities grew and were planned and designed, and where resources were positioned to give everyone access to what they needed without compromising the needs of others. Our Grade Fives and Sixes explored the increasing need for power as Australian lifestyles have changed over time, and the impacts of immigration through a series of moments in time such as the Snowy River Hydroelectricity Scheme.

I’ve designed curriculum which is quite explicit as well, exploring and increasing children’s awareness of different environments and why they can be found on different parts of the earth from where they are. I’ve asked students to imagine that they were a learner in another part of the world and how they understand how we live, in relation to our natural world. How do people access the food that they need, and what would happen if the supermarkets closed down? Often, the challenge in this type of approach is ensuring that children do not feel hopeless or helpless and that we equip them to understand differences in their worlds.

Connection to our planet

A mantra of environmental education has always been that it should be in the world, about the world and for the world. I think of my favourite experience ever, both with young children and later with preservice teachers, going on a journey to a friend and colleague’s (Dr Caroline Smith) permaculture farm. Apart from helping students understand themselves in relationship to the sun and its movements, and the variance of seasons, these trips put many kids in touch with the land that they had never experienced. We laughed as students picked fresh produce, as they walked the zones, delighting in foods that they would not ordinarily have eaten. We feigned horror as kids put their fingers through worm castings. Ultimately, we rejoiced in our humanity and our connection to our planet. Such experience must be part of our everyday.