As these headlines point out the sustainability of our natural world is crucial to the survival of humankind. These types of social, environmental or cultural problems can be difficult to address because of: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.

Raising awareness and taking action in order to look after our natural world is intimately connected with how well our education systems function. A changing climate isn’t just an ‘education problem’, it is also an issue facing our global and national economic systems. These determine levels of poverty and educational equity. Issues of hunger, low life expectancy, negative health outcomes, bad housing, and high debt are very real flow on effects of a changing climate and degraded natural world.


What can be done? Harnessing the power of interconnectedness - He hono tangata e kore e motu; ka pā he taura waka e motu

We are living in an increasingly globalised community. As citizens of Aotearoa and the world, we have rights, privileges and responsibilities that bind us. The whakataukī above underpins this idea - material bonds can be broken, but human bonds endure.

New technologies can act as a powerful tool to enable local and international connections. Schools and learning communities across the world are using networking sites in order to explore and address environmental sustainability. The idea of ‘sustainability’ sits behind the health of our natural world, but it also holds potential for citizens to forge collective action in order to address a wicked problem like climate change.

As a first step, Te Whāriki, New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) (PDF, 1.1 MB), Te Marautanga o Aotearoa (TMoA) (PDF, 299 KB), and the Guidelines for Environmental Education all offer us an enabling spaces to take a future focus and tackle environmental issues in our learning communities. However, learning centres, schools and kura need to make a more explicit mandate for building environmental education into learning programmes and cross-curricular activities. Hipkins, Bolstad, Boyd and McDowall (2014) point out that curriculum directions are not enough on their own. They suggest two big ideas are needed if a future focus is to be applied to a wicked problem, such environmental sustainability:

The first is to shift how we view knowledge, and the second is the need to redesign educational approaches to that they are based on what we now know about learning… We have in mind a curriculum that really does put the learners themselves at the heart of their learning now. Learners would also keep in sight the important knowledge and skills they must learn, while holding a clear view of where the outcomes of that learning might support them to venture in their futures (pp. 29-31).

Based on current New Zealand research into environmental education (Bolstad, Joyce, and Hipkins, 2015), below are but two (among many) practical things learning centres, schools and kura can do to take a future-oriented approach to strengthen environmental sustainability.

Take a whole-system perspective - He rau ringa e oti ai

Addressing environmental sustainability inherently involves diverse people and ideas. As a first principle, we have found that mātauranga Māori (the Māori knowledge continuum) is a powerful way to (re)connect and (re)affirm the relationship between humans and the natural world. Māori knowledge systems are distinctive. They contain esoteric as well as practical knowledges all of which are values based (Hutchings, 2012, p. 5). By inquiring into mātauranga Māori we can begin to respectfully integrate Māori understandings of our natural world into learning programmes.

If the first step is to affirm Māori knowledges and values in environmental education, the second step is to map the whole-system in order to create links between what’s already in place in our learning centre, school or kura, and external agencies. These external agencies may include (but are not limited to):

  • Government: The Ministry for the Environment, Department of Conservation, regional, district and city councils.
  • Non-government: These could include marae, hapū, iwi, rūnanga, local care-groups, business and community sector.

A productive way to engage external agencies is to invite them to be part of your education and environmental programme. Sometimes having a hands on approach works best e.g. inviting them to be part of camps, visits to local and/or national sites of significance, and learning experiences outside the classroom.

Set shared goals and agree on indicators of “success” - Tē tōia, tē haumatia

This whakataukī encourages us to think about planning, and ways of working in order to successfully meet our goals. Taking a whole-system perspective ensures that responsibility for sustainability is collectively held. It’s important to start thinking together about what “success” might mean. Key things to consider include:

  • Think about the purpose of your approach/programme i.e. What areas of environmental education do you want to focus on and why e.g. waste minimisation and e-recycling; biodiversity restoration; food production and use; water conservation and care; sustainable energy us; eco buildings?
  • How can you formalise environmental education into your learning centre, school or kura policy and planning?
  • What will ensure that your programmes are sustainable? i.e. not dependent on one or two people to provide energy and expertise in environmental education.
  • Undertake a stocktake of what resources/units/ideas are needed to create an environmental education programme.
  • Think about how your learning centre, school and kura will establish and maintain links with external environmental groups.
  • What frameworks do you have in place to order to track student and ākonga learning.

We know that successful whole-of school environmental learning programmes tend to be characterised by the following (Bolstad et al. 2015, p. 28):

  • Having partnerships, political support and education for sustainability expertise;
  • Programme support/curriculum and marautanga alignment;
  • Professional development for teachers and kaiako;
  • Making national links and links to other environmental initiatives;
  • Accreditation and certification; and
  • Investing in school and kura monitoring and evaluation.

The area of environmental education and its impacts on student and ākonga is growing. There is much potential for kura and schools to consciously explore how education for sustainability impacts on student and ākonga learning. In the end, it’s up to learning centres, schools and kura to find out what works for them.

The land will provide sustenance for future generations - Ko te whenua te waiū mō ngā uri whakatupu

Our natural world can greatly influence our cultural values, identity and language(s). As educationalists our role requires us to protect and enhance our environment. Student engagement and decision-making about sustaining our natural world is a vital part of this process now, and into the future. Collectively, we have an opportunity to ensure environmental education can have a positive impact on student knowledge, attitudes and learning motivations.