Question: Why educate for sustainability?

Published on: 
25 Mar 2014

Answer:  Because we have to learn how to live well in our places without undermining the ability of our places to sustain us over time. If we are to succeed at doing so, then the knowledge, skills and habits-of-mind we need to do so must be cultivated in our schools.

The National Action Plan for Educating for Sustainability published by the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council has the potential to accelerate the shift toward the systemic development of schools that are organized around how students learn, for the future we want. All our children and young people are legally required to be in school during the most favorable time in their lives for learning. If we want a healthy and sustainable future for generations to come, we need to educate for that future. (“All systems are perfectly designed to get the results they get” (Richmond)). Envision a nested system:

  • each individual learns
  • within the context of social learning settings of children
  • within the context of young people and adults learning together
  • within the context of organizations that are learning
  • within the context of buildings and grounds that are continually improving their performance
  • within communities that are learning, and so on. 

When schools fundamentally and systemically evolve in this way, policies and practices will be in place, incentives will be established and our individual and collective performance will be assessed. Schools and communities will learn and work together toward sustainability; authentic, place-based teaching and learning will be pervasive; and children and young people will be respected and collaborated with as partners and leaders. In order to get from here to there, all levels of school governance personnel, families, residential and business communities, and providers of products and services to our schools must work congruently and must keep thinking, innovating, collaborating, talking candidly, improving their capabilities, self-correcting, and making personal commitments to our shared future. It is because of my steadfast belief in this pathway to the future we want that I participated in the process of creating a National Action Plan, and why I have joined the Advisory Board of the Center for Green Schools. 

The next step is implementation. Many great plans have come and gone without robust implementation. For a plan to go from paper to populace, the timing has to be right; the rationale for change has to be compelling; the results have to be visible, desirable and doable for all, “the right people have to be in the right seats on the bus” (Collins); and the political will has to be relentless. Sustainability Education and Environmental Education are mature fields of inquiry. We have Benchmarks and Big Ideas and we are ready for large scale systemic integration and alignment with the nation’s Next Generation Science Standards, The Common Core, STEM and STEAM. I think the sustainability education community has what it takes and The National Action Plan can serve as a catalyst to instigate the next cycle of educational life for our children.


Jaimie P. Cloud is President and Founder, The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education, and a Center for Green Schools Advisory Board member