Education for sustainability

28th May 2021
During the Malta Sustainability Forum, we got to briefly meet Alexia Micallef Gatt, a science and biology teacher, who is passionate about educating the young. Today we get to know more about her work in the educational sphere, relating to the topics of sustainability.

As an educator, when do you think are the crucial years to get children educated about sustainability and the SDGs?

Sustainability is really a way of life. Therefore, I believe that values and practices which enable sustainable living should be introduced to children as young as possible. This could help ingrain such good habits, which hopefully become second nature as children grow up. With regards to a more formal understanding of the concepts behind sustainability and the SDGs I think this could start in the early primary years and continue all throughout the secondary years.

What are the most effective ways to get children interested and involved in these subjects, and actually take the theory they learn and put it into practice?

As an educator you must know your audience well to ensure you are presenting concepts and ideas effectively. The age of the students is a very important factor to consider ensuring terminology used is age appropriate. It would also help to keep in mind the interests of the students to make the presentation of information more interesting. When I was young, Xummiemu was our eco-hero; teaching us how to keep our environment clean. If mascots such as Xummiemu are something younger children could look up to and relate to, the character could model certain appropriate behaviours, which children can easily replicate. Gamification is also another idea which could be effective with older children, say 7 to 12 years of age. Through gamification, children can have different challenges or a sort of points-scheme between different classes at school or even between different schools. So, let’s say “switching lights off before break = 2points” or “using lunchboxes as opposed to foil or paper packaging = 5 points”. The challenges could run either throughout the year or possibly during a sustainability awareness month for example. Challenges such as these are quite motivating for kids I believe. When backing up the gamification with the real reasons as to why the tasks are in themselves beneficial, I would say it is quite likely that kids will take on these habits more permanently, which is ultimately what we are after. Also, from my personal experience children like to share knowledge apprehended with adults so they are excellent disseminators of sustainable practices.

With older students in secondary school, I think finding the time to introduce and discuss current affairs or research is crucial. I think adolescents like to feel included in the adult world. Therefore, activities such as debates or project-based learning might be more effective in helping students become advocates of certain issues they become passionate about. Recently, I assigned my students a project-based learning activity. Students had to identify the biggest problem the planet is facing right now and communicate it to their classmates. As part of the presentation, students had to pretend that they were trying to secure funds, which would be invested in solving the problem of their choice so they had to include how this money would be spent too. Some students mentioned threats to biodiversity while focused on the degradation of local green spaces in favour of construction. In all cases students mentioned that some money should be invested in educational campaigns to help children and adults learn more about the problem as well as how they can contribute to the solution. Going a step further, it would have been interesting had I to assign students to transform their message into a format that could be shared through their favourite social media platforms to keep spreading the message.

Education for sustainability

Do you think that most parents have enough knowledge about these topics to actually follow a sustainable lifestyle with their kids at home?

I would say that the answer depends on which areas of sustainability we are discussing. I believe there were a good number of campaigns that were effective such as those related to recycling or oceanic plastic pollution. With these causes, I think there is a good understanding of what needs to be done. With respect to other less socially discussed topics such as sustainable food choices, sustainable communities or even reduced inequalities, I feel parents might be less prepared or aware. The more the SDGs become socially discussed issues, and the more accessible the information is, the more knowledgeable everyone would be. Also, I do believe a lot in the power children have in educating their parents. So, providing apps and games or school activities where children learn about such issues would mean that they will most probably communicate knowledge at home.

Do you think the school syllabus allocates enough time and resources towards subjects relating to sustainability?

When looking at the current National Curriculum, Education for sustainable development is listed as a cross curricular theme. This means that educators of all year groups and all subjects should communicate the principles of ESD as they teach their different subjects. There is also an education officer within the ministry for education who supports educators in doing this. I think a great deal of effort and resources are put towards the eko-skola council and particular school initiatives like waste reduction week etc. These are surely super initiatives, which should keep taking place. However, I think more can be done in the individual classes on a daily basis. Personally, I would say that in order to have a more sustainable approach towards communicating the principles of sustainability and the SDGs there should be more of an integration in regular teaching and learning. This might seem ambitious but sometimes it just takes some creativity while structuring lessons. So, let’s say a maths teacher covering the topic statistics. The data used in the examples could be data in relation to weather and climate change. Or possibly English teachers assigning comprehensions texts, which discuss the conflict in Syria. In my opinion, it’s all about introducing concepts and ideas as part of our syllabus topics and not necessarily as the direct objective of the lesson. Surely, educators should be supported through professional development sessions to help them achieve this. I think it would be particularly helpful if room could be made for a new subject similar to PSCD but which emphasizes different aspects of citizenship such as active participation in the community and the principles of sustainable living etc.

How do you think we can make the young more active contributor to society, beyond their school years?

Youth and young children have a voice…but it is up to the decision makers to start giving it the value it deserves. If we want youths to be active contributors, their participation should be encouraged rather than overlooked. A few years ago, a student of mine who was on the school student council was also the youth member within his local council. I thought that this was an excellent way of integrating the perspective and ideas of youths while encouraging him to keep contributing to his community. Youth activism groups such as AZ (Aġenzija Żgħażagħ) and KNZ (Kunsill Nazzjonali Żagħżagħ) should also be involved in conferences and national policy making discussions to further ensure that youths are involved. I also think that social media can play an important role in this. If we brainstorm ways how to harness social media and digital tools for educational purposes as opposed to just recreational. Why not have campaigns where youths create tiktoks or Instagram posts which aim to showcase sustainable practices? Another idea would be using YouTube channels or podcasts to discuss certain issues related to inequalities and health. This would make the dissemination of information and practices more relatable and appealing. Youths could therefore be using the platforms in more productive and beneficial ways while still keeping connected.

What tools do you think are required to get people into collective action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

I think it is about instilling a sense of awareness and responsibility in the general public. Often, I believe individuals leave it up to governments or policy makers to solve problems and attain targets. In this case though, while these entities do have important roles to play, each and every one of us can contribute. I think that there is already quite some awareness about aspects of sustainability related to environmental awareness such as using less electricity or recycling. Having said that, I would say that less is known about certain SDGs such as those related to peace, health and reduced inequalities. I think we need to be more aware that our actions do not only affect our country and our community as ultimately we are part of a global network. We are linked not only to all other human beings but to all biodiversity and nature as a whole. So, that’s a lot of shared responsibility. Also, there is a lot of emphasis on actions, but I think that this is primarily an argument of values. If my values reflect my awareness and care for the environment and society then, consequently, so will my actions. Therefore, educational campaigns should not only aim to promote actions but also WHY these actions should take place. This will target one’s values making the action a natural consequence of what one believes is right and responsible rather than just something one should remember to do. To learn more about what Alexia had to say during the Malta Sustainability Forum, check out the recording on the module 'Youth: Proposals for a better future'.