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New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Education & Society

The education factor in the green economy

Teaching students to think deeply about sustainability has never been so important, believes DR SIMON McMILLAN.

The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) recently published a discussion paper on facing the future of a green economy (here). The society is to be applauded for maintaining the debate about this issue in the public eye. We should also note that this document marks a key ‘leadership moment’ in a move to a more sustainable economy in our country.

Thanks to the Royal Society’s and others’ efforts, the ideas surrounding what it is to be ‘green’ are now firmly occupying mainstream thinking of many of our leading New Zealanders. When they are moved enough to act on an issue like this, it must be important. Not before time, then, we have a more widespread realisation of the need to substantially rethink our mind-sets of how we see ourselves and our country’s future in our world.

The discussion paper highlights the need to incentivise the involvement of all New Zealanders in embracing the opportunities a ‘green economy’ can offer. Bang on. A problem area, though, for most New Zealanders is their understanding of, and accessibility to, sustainability. Transformational change in our economy will come when everyone is able to buy in to sustainability thinking; be it around land, water, air, waste or energy or other resources.

To this end, we need to clarify what is meant by the terms ‘green economy’ and ‘sustainability’. One descriptive of ‘green economy’ is apposite in stating, “A green economy is one that results in improved human wellbeing by reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities and aims for sustainable development” (United Nations Environment Programme, 2012). Sustainability could be described as “A condition in which natural systems and social systems survive and thrive together indefinitely.” (Euston & Gibson, 1995).

Uncharacteristically for RSNZ, the discussion paper doesn’t explicitly highlight the pivotal role of school education in facilitating transformational change. Fortunately, the catalyst for developing that transformational change of mind-set is already present in our education system. In that regard, I believe, the most important senior subject offered on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework is not physics, biology, mathematics, accounting, business or history. It’s a subject called Education for Sustainability (EfS).

The reason why EfS is so important is because it includes all the above and many other subjects. Taking EfS at school demands a rethink for students of the way in which they see their world. Education for Sustainability is the ultimate cross-curricula inquiry based subject and builds on the concepts embedded in the Enviroschools kaupapa.

So what exactly is it? Education for Sustainability is certainly not focussed on tree hugging or fringy ‘greeny’ logic. It’s not about a hindrance to the economy. To the contrary, it is a way of promoting smart and innovative thinking aimed at balanced, and sensible growth, not wanton consumerism. It’s all about seeing the systems that support us and our world differently. It’s all about being informed and acting to support each other as we try to maintain livelihoods, our families and businesses within the context of our environmental support system.

Does the secondary school your children or grandchildren go to offer this subject? There are many barriers to EfS being taken up by schools. The most important is the perception of what our society values. This perception is particularly important for school students in their middle and senior years. Those students are making choices about their future and selecting their pathways toward a career they think is valued by society. What exactly are we telling them we value at the moment?

Published earlier than the RSNZ paper, are reports commissioned by the Ministry of Education on the state of science education by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (view at http://www.nzcer.org.nz/research/publications). In these reports, the Council summarises the rethink required around teaching and learning of science in a new and rapidly evolving world. Bearing in mind the RSNZ discussion paper, that world will be most likely based around the ideas of green economies, sustainability and innovation.

Central ideas (in the NZCER reports) to more future oriented science education are identified as e-based networking, professional development and curriculum support for teachers, and school-science community engagement. What’s missing in respect of moving to a ‘green economy’ is public accessibility to science and technology education that showcases the ideas of sustainability in action. For the public to understand the transformational shift in mind set to a green economy, for them to say yes we are comfortable with that shift, they need to see that it can work for them. Learning in science and technology should be oriented to show them that.

That concurrent rethink in Science leads us back to green economies supported through EfS learning. The latter is future oriented and flexible to meet the challenges of inquiry-based learning in schools using science, technology, mathematics, or whatever other skill-sets and subject knowledge will be needed. EfS should be at the core of thinking and learning in schools and our society, not on the margins.

Moreover, EfS provides the important contextual link to networking within communities (schools, businesses, governance etc.) and the different aspects of human interaction with the environment. In addition, if the efforts of primary, secondary and tertiary educators can be merged we will create a focussed, resource efficient and powerfully collaborative support base for EfS learning in and between different subjects.

Previous and current generations may have stuffed up a few things to do with our environment. So be it. What’s important now, is to show the structure towards, and the value of, a new way of thinking for our young people. The Royal Society has actually provoked discussion on just that; and EfS in schools, for that future, is a vital component. Pass it on.

Dr Simon McMillan is the Head of Science at Kaikorai Valley College in Dunedin

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