*This article is Part Three in a series of articles about environmental justice and education:
We are coming into an era of environmentalism in which the term no longer conjures radical ideas in most people’s minds. One can now be in favor of protecting the environment in the most elemental ways – i.e. recycling, turning off lights when they are not in use, taking the extra step to avoid littering – without being considered a crunchy, tree-hugging hippie. In theory, most people would agree that teaching basic environmental awareness in schools would be beneficial. However, as with most issues related to public schools, concerns immediately emerge regarding the resources, funding, and man-power needed to make it happen.
At this point, we often find environmental education on the chopping block, as most schools still do not consider it a priority. In order to convince anyone otherwise, the first step is to ask ourselves whether implementation of environmental education in schools would truly be worth the prerequisite investment. I believe that the answer is yes and that the time is now. After all, it is the very future of our children that is put in jeopardy if we fail to produce environmentally conscientious, global citizens.
The call for more environmental education in our schools is a pertinent and timely cause, because cities around the country are dedicating more time and resources to being “green.” The Obama Administration has even cited environmental literacy as a priority for states, finally bringing the issue of environmental education to the forefront of national policy and budget debates. The recently proposed amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) would provide a sizeable grant over a period of five years to any state that produces a competent plan for environmental and outdoor education. Sustainable practices and education go hand-in-hand, meaning that in order for schools to truly teach lessons of sustainability, they must themselves be more efficient. Achieving this double dip of sustainability in schools is particularly important for three reasons: sustainable practices are money-saving, schools are often a hub of community-wide learning, and habit formation and environmental stewardship from a young age is the best way to ensure that the next generation will be greener than ours.
School systems are not immune to the debt crises faced by other industries; districts across the nation are facing tough choices in order to balance their budgets. For this reason alone, sustainable solutions that require less energy make fiscal sense. In her book Go Green: How to Build an Earth-Friendly Community, Nancy H. Taylor outlines a number of sensible options for schools looking to be green and save some green. Some tactics can be employed to retrofit a previously built school with energy-saving elements, such as compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) or even light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that last much longer than incandescent lights and require far less energy output.
Those building new schools should be conscious of creating a space to take advantage of day lighting. This makes sense since students are at school during the day, and in fact test scores show that the brain works better in natural lighting than in artificial lighting. Taylor goes on to say that while building a green school may initially cost one to four dollars more per square foot to build, the savings often amount to about seventy dollars per square foot. Children should be taught why all of these solutions are important, and should also be held responsible for being green by minimizing energy and water use during the school day. By creating a sustainable environment at school, we are teaching kids to conserve and to use wisely while also saving the school district valuable resources.
Environmental curricula are also important because schools are not only a place of education for the students, who inhabit it daily, but also the families and the greater community, who benefit from its service. If you have ever spent time with young children, you know that an idea can spread like wildfire if a child becomes passionate about something and brings it home. Picture children becoming the “recycling police” in their families, thereby bringing the habits of the classroom home. Parents and grandparents who were not raised with the same environmental consciousness will learn from their children, and in this way the lessons taught at school can set an example for the whole community.
Finally, environmental education in schools is critically important because it is the next generation who will benefit from a more sustainable society. A Native American proverb says it best, warning that “we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” If we think this way, we will remember that we have an obligation to teach our children how to make a better world for themselves, as we simultaneously strive to leave the Earth better than we found it. The best way to do this is through quality, targeted education from an early age.
It is common knowledge that forming a habit is easier than trying to change one that is already ingrained, and it likewise makes sense to create environmental stewards from an early age, rather than attempting to augment behavior later on. Schools are the pillars of a young child’s education and the place where habits are made and beliefs are adopted. Schools are also the place where children spend most of their waking hours for the first twelve or thirteen years of life. Education is also the greatest tool of empowerment, so teaching children that they can save their own planet is a great way to engender confidence and self-efficacy. For all of these reasons, schools are the natural arena for quality environmental education. The sooner we can harness the power of schools to create a greener society, the better our children will be.
- Part One: Environmental Justice and Education: An Introduction
- Part Two: A Vision of Just and Sustainable Education
- Part Three: Why Environmental Education Makes Sense Now (Currently Viewing)