How to Teach Sustainability in the Classroom

Sustainability is a word that is permeating current culture through references such as sustainable development and sustainable agriculture. Introducing the concepts, including related areas of conservation and natural resources, does not require new curriculum or including a new unit of study. Teaching students about sustainability can be achieved by making carefully considered changes and adaptations to existing lessons and assignments.

What is Sustainability?

The Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in the 1980s defined sustainable development as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Later, in the early 1990s, the IUCN World Conservation Union (IUCN), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) provided a simpler definition in an attempt to include all areas with sustainable considerations as, “sustainability is improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems”

Neither definition is universally accepted as the definitive explanation of sustainability, but both highlight the components necessary for something to be sustainable. Those components are environmental, social and economic impacts. All three of these can be included in existing classroom lessons, student assignments and projects by modifying related lessons.

How to Change Lessons to Include Sustainability Concepts

According to Top Kenyan Online Casinos website, since sustainability has a direct connection to science it is easy to find direct connections already in the curriculum. The direct tie between sustainability and conservation can be investigated in lessons about recycling and alternative energies.

Students can explore what-if scenarios when learning about the water cycle, carbon cycle, or different ecosystems, and determine what might happen when external changes affect them. During lessons about animals they can be introduced to what happens when one species in the food chain of a specific area becomes extinct and how it affects the remaining animals.

Though science classes seem the most likely to be able to modify lessons, other curriculum areas also have lessons that can include sustainability concepts. Social impacts can be introduced in social studies and current event lessons by having students examine what happens to cultures when there is a major outside influence or how their own life’s are changing in response to environmental concerns.

Word problems in math can be written so students can calculate fuel consumption or estimate their own carbon footprint. Students could also be provided a writing assignment that has them trace a food product’s route from farm to table or explain how they are trying to conserve energy in their home.

Though on their own none of the above examples tackle the complete challenge of teaching students about sustainability, each brings an awareness of one small piece. Examining current curriculum and adding a problem or making a connection where appropriate is one way to begin introducing the many concepts and aspects of sustainable living to students.

How to Teach a Lesson

Approaches to lesson planning vary according to subject matter, grade level, and teaching philosophy. However, beginning and experienced teachers can benefit from a few basic principals of effective lesson planning.

Long-Term Lesson Planning

During the process of planning their lessons and mapping out curriculum, teachers should always begin with the big picture, including which objectives and academic standards must be covered over the course of the school year, which ones have already been covered, and which will be easily covered by other assignments and activities.

The best way for teachers to find the academic standards required for their particular state is to visit their state’s department of education website to acquire of a copy of the academic standards for their subject area.

Teachers should also check for the existence of district standards and curriculum requirements, as well as the curriculum requirements of their department. This can be done by contacting the local school district and department head.

Get Students’ Attention

When planning a lesson, it is important to capture the students’ attention at the very beginning of class. A long, rambling introduction to a lesson is guaranteed to turn students off to the material. Instead, teachers should begin with what is called an anticipatory set, which is also referred as the motivation of the lesson. This should take place at the very beginning of the lesson, before any other material is covered or information given.

The anticipatory set or motivation not only gets the students’ attention, but also focuses their attention on the task or material at hand or to be covered, and is a way to shift their attention away from anything that might have happened before or outside of class. This can consist of a variety of different activities, such as listening to a piece of music, looking at an image, reading and responding to a quote written on the board, or studying and writing about a particular object.

Activate Prior Knowledge

Rather than spoon-feeding students by giving them information such as the definitions of concepts or vocabulary, teachers should always draw on prior knowledge by asking students to construct definitions individually, as a class, or in small groups. This means waiting to give handouts containing information and definitions until after students have brainstormed concepts as a class or in small groups.

Brainstorming concepts and definitions with students is important, not only to activate prior knowledge, but because students who construct their own definitions are more likely to store that information in their long-term memory. A variety of resources for building on prior knowledge advocate helping students make meaningful connections between what students are learning and what they already know or have experienced in their daily lives.

Make Lessons Interactive

In addition to brainstorming and drawing on prior knowledge, teachers should focus on making sure that lessons are interactive, allowing on-going student input and feedback. Teachers can make lessons more interactive by asking questions and seeking a variety of different possibilities. When introducing new concepts and ideas, teachers must be open to student input rather than seeking one “right” answer.

Student interaction in the classroom can take place during the actual lesson, as well as in small or large groups activities created to follow the introduction of a new concept. Ongoing interaction can also take place one-on-one between teachers and students. One of the best ways to encourage interaction is to provide a safe learning environment where students feel comfortable speaking up and taking risks, and to provide positive feedback when students do speak up.

Don’t Waste Classroom Time

In order to effectively utilize every minute of classroom time, teachers need to establish rules and routines that ensure that class time is saved rather than wasted. Students should not be allowed to pack up, line up, or quit before the bell. Teachers should establish routines for handing out papers, turning in work and returning graded work, making up missed work, and getting copies of materials to late or absent students.

Effective teachers and learning environments keep students engaged from the first minute of class to the last. Ten minutes of wasted class time at the beginning or end of class adds up to many hours of lost, valuable instruction time. Simple routines also allow students to understand the boundaries of the classroom, what is expected of them when, and how to establish routines and organizational strategies in their own lives.

Effective Teachers are Effective Models

Classroom teachers model certain types of behavior professionalism, such as beginning class on time and treating students with respect, but what is less obvious is that teachers should also model by reading when the students read, writing when they write, and modeling specific activities such as reading out loud and performing certain skills or tasks.

Effective modeling of new skills and concepts can take the form of elaborate demonstrations or simple examples. Providing examples and models to students gives them a touchstone for knowing what is expected of them, how much effort is needed to pass or get an A, and when to ask questions or seek help.

No matter what approach to lesson-planning or what types of teaching methods teachers use in their classrooms, keeping in mind the basics of effective long and short-term planning, establishing classroom rules and routines, brainstorming concepts and definitions, and modeling skills, can result in more student engagement and less instructional time wasted.


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