Sustainability in our classrooms

By Phil Crawford

New Zealand’s education system is grappling with climate change. Last year thousands of Kiwi pupils joined the international School Strike 4 Climate movement making it clear their generation wants governments and businesses to walk the talk when it comes to taking meaningful and urgent climate action.

Now the Ministry of Education has given our schools new resources to help teachers increase the awareness and understanding of climate change. The resource, Climate Change – prepare today, live well tomorrow, will “help students understand the effects of climate change at a local, national and global scale and to apply it to their everyday lives,” says Education Minister Chris Hipkins.

That’s an encouraging move and it got the team at the Sustainable Business Network talking around the watercooler (you guessed it, it’s ceramic, not plastic). What about sustainability – how much does it feature in the curriculum? And, is it making a difference?

To get a snapshot of how New Zealand is tracking we talked to a cross section of our members in the education sector. As it was the first week of the school year not everyone was able to respond. Of those that did, most said sustainability was central to the way they worked.

One of the best examples was the aptly named Green School New Zealand that will open the doors of its purpose-built campus to students (years 1 to 13) in Taranaki next week.

The school’s philosophy and curriculum is based on a model that has been developed in Bali since 2008. New Zealand is home to the second school of what could one day be a global network. Other satellite schools are expected to open in South Africa and Mexico over the next two years.

CEO Chris Edwards describes Green School as “completely revolutionary” and goes on to say that “what we’re doing here is going to become the new normal”.

The curriculum will incorporate NCEA qualifications, but is entirely bespoke for Green School.

“Our home grown, comprehensive green studies curriculum evolves from ecology to sustainability, while connecting students to our local geographic and cultural context.”

The school is located on one of the largest private rewilding projects in NZ and students will spend up to half of their school time learning outdoors.

“Using a hands-on approach allows students to get their hands dirty and get mud between their toes, while reinforcing the essential skills of reading, writing, maths and science.”

Chris says the school is attracting families from around the world and New Zealand to Taranaki.

“The Bali experience has proved there is a definite demand for this type of education.”


Growing up in the outdoors

The hands-on approach was a dominant theme with everyone we spoke to. There was an added emphasis in the early childhood sector. Yvonne Groot manages the Learning Space which runs three early childhood centres in Auckland. While teaching young children about the environment has always been important, there is now much more of focus, she says.

“How can we expect children to grow up and have a relationship with the Earth if we don’t allow them to develop and experience that from a young age?

“It’s not just the label of sustainability, we’re also role modelling to the children to treat the world with kindness.”

This happens every day in all sorts of ways.

“We show them how to grow vegetables and flowers and to be kind to animals. We acknowledge and highlight the seasons and we’ll pick up rubbish if we see it on our walks.”

The Children’s Garden, in Nelson, takes a similar approach, says owner and Principal Natasha Kibble.

“Sustainability is at the forefront of everything we do – from the way we designed and built our centre through to teaching our children to have a good relationship with the environment as they’re growing up and learning to understand the world.

“We’re teaching them to have a connection to places so they learn care and concern.”

For example they’re showing children how to nurture new fruit trees on the grounds and they’ve looked closely at their lavender plants and bee ecosystem which included bringing in a bee keeper.

They also have regular ‘beyond the gate into nature’ trips to explore local parks and reserves.


Widespread impacts

The Toimata Foundation is probably not an organisation you know much about but it is having a far reaching impact on promoting sustainability.

The foundation partners with Te Mauri Tau and over 100 other organisations to support two nationwide programmes – Te Aho Tu Roa and Enviroschools. Through these programmes Toimata is working with over 1200 schools, kura, early childhood centres. Strategic Relationships Manager Kristen Price says that over 100,000 pupils will participate in the foundation’s programmes this year. She estimates those programmes have now influenced around 1 million Kiwi kids and their whānau.

Enviroschools was initiated in Hamilton in the 1990s and has spread around the country. Te Aho Tū Roa was developed in the early 2000s and has a growing reach.

“As the national support organisation our role includes programme development, partnerships, programme resources like kits and websites, research, and providing a wide range of professional development and networking opportunities,” says Kristen.

“Sustainability is grounded in people’s culture, attitudes and values. Through individual and community empowerment, we are supporting the systemic long term change needed for a sustainable future.”


Tertiary education

Sustainability is a subject that features in many courses offered by the tertiary institutes we spoke to.

Director of Māori Development at Ara Institute of Canterbury, Te Marino Lenihan, says it has more than 10 programmes of study that either integrate or focus on sustainability and involved more than 750 students last year. Those programmes range from individual papers through to a Bachelor of Sustainability and Outdoor Education and a Post Graduate Certificate or Diploma in Sustainable Practice.

Te Marino also chairs Ara Sustainability Advisory Committee and says the institute’s aim is to ensure that students have opportunities to learn about the principles of sustainability and to graduate with a better understanding of sustainable practice relevant to their field of study. He adds that Ara is responding to the market.

“Students are tuned into sustainability and climate change and are making decisions on where they want to study based on the issues that are close to their heart. We have an aspiration to get sustainability into all our papers.”

Similarly, Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and The University of Auckland have papers focused on sustainability across their faculties.  AUT Sustainability Advisor Lucy McKenzie says the number of those papers has grown organically over the past decade. They include a minor in Design for Sustainability for the AUT’s Bachelor of Design and a minor in Sustainable Enterprise for the Bachelor of Business. This year AUT is opening a School of Future Environments relating to architecture, social, cultural and environmental issues.

Lucy says sustainability projects on campus provide opportunities for applied learning through experience. Projects have included how to promote organic waste collection and outlining how AUT should progress with recycling at AUT.

AUT also offers a Young Sustainability Leaders’ Programme linking students with sustainability mentors.

Both AUT and The University of Auckland are signed up to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which are promoted as “the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”.

Last year The University of Auckland was ranked No. 1 in a new measure of how universities worldwide are performing against those goals.

Dr Lesley Stone, Manager of Sustainability and Environment, says the global and diverse nature of the 17 goals has resonated across a broader range of staff and students than would previously have been engaged in sustainability. This has enhanced commitment and involvement across the university. The university recently released its first SDG Report which reflects the range of relevant initiatives in leadership, governance, research, teaching and operations.

In September 2019, The University of Auckland and AUT co-hosted New Zealand’s second national SDG Summit (see presentations and report here), and both are represented on a Universities New Zealand Expert Working Group on Sustainability and the SDGs.

The EcoQuest Education Foundation Te Rarangahau Taiao (EcoQuest) was established in 1999. EcoQuest offers residential, sustainability-based programmes that are attended by international students, mainly from US universities.

The EcoQuest vision is ‘catalysts for sustainability through education and research’. This dual focus, coupled with an emphasis on and commitment to community engagement, provides students with place-based learning opportunities through real life case studies, research and practice.

“Students develop deep connections to our environment; they learn how multiple world views – Te Ao Māori and te Ao Pakeha – guide sustainable pathways in resource management,” says EcoQuest Director Jono Clark.

Hands-on learning opportunities include exploring the role and scope of protected areas, understanding catchment management issues, carrying out shellfish surveys and kiwi call surveys, and investigating the impacts of gold mining in Waihi.

Students are involved in research projects around the North Island, including monitoring of Hochstetter’s frogs, invertebrate surveys from Northland to Waikato, documenting changes over time in biota on Motuihe Island.  EcoQuest also assists with initiatives to enhance biodiversity on private land.  All findings are shared with stakeholders and directly inform resource management decisions.


Skills for life

Eco Go, in Hamilton, offers those who have passed through the education system the opportunity to learn sustainability-based skills through its Enviro Centre. Manager Jo Wrigley says they’ve been running community-based workshops for the past 20 years but there has been a marked increase in interest over the past two.

Jo puts that down to a growing sense that climate change is having a noticeable impact now and that living more sustainably is one way of taking action.

“People want to make changes. They’re talking to their neighbours and their friends about what to do. They’ve given up plastic bags, which was easy, and now they’re looking for the next thing to do. There is a massive interest in how to grow food in all sorts of places from community gardens to balconies.”

This year five workshops are on offer: permaculture, future living, waste busters, how to grow your own food, and adult bike safety and confidence. Courses are low cost (usually under $25) or no cost. Profits from the social enterprise division help fund those courses.

Photo: One of the recently completed classroom pods at Green School New Zealand which opens in Taranaki next week. Credit: Green School New Zealand