The Rise of Global Eco-Schools and Sustainability Programs
Student-led, it's run organically from both the top down and from the bottom up
by Dr. Rod Berger
It wasn’t that long ago the mention of a sustainability program in a school would elicit visions of a small group of students and an engaged teacher or two picking up trash or tending to a small school garden. Today, entire schools and even districts are on the sustainability train, and nobody thinks twice about it.
Brid Conneely is the International Director at Eco-Schools International, overseeing the adoption of sustainable practices in schools all over the globe. Whether they are called Eco-Schools or Green Schools, her organization is helping blaze the trail to eco-friendly campuses in 68 member countries around the world.
A main theme for certified Eco-Schools is the idea of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It’s a list of tangible goals that dates back to the 70s, with various adjustments and amendments taking place along the way. The idea is that schools don’t just “go green,” but have a specific set of goals to follow, like gender equality, zero hunger, and responsible consumption and production, to make them Eco-Schools certified.
Brid champions the importance of project-based learning (PBL) and global design thinking when it comes to implementing sustainable best practices with educational curriculum. Brid points to tremendous progress with project-based learning not only in the United States but Brazil, Italy, and Australia. It’s further proof of the far-reaching influence of Brid Conneely on the global expansion of sustainability in schools.
About Brid Conneely:
Brid Conneely is the International Director at Eco-Schools International In Copenhagen Denmark, where she coordinates the Eco-Schools program in 68 member countries. Prior to that she was Partnerships and Projects Manager at the British Council in Copenhagen. Brid earned a BA in Theatre/English from the University of Copenhagen, and an MA in Screenwriting from the National University of Ireland, Galway.
Follow Brid Conneely on Twitter.
This article was originally posted in the Huffington Post by Dr. Rod Berger
ROD BERGER: Brid, we were talking off-air a little bit about the increased attention around the environment and the interwovenness of the environment and our schools around the world. You were saying something that I want to make sure the audience has a grasp of which is an appreciation of the organic nature of this movement, not only from higher education down through preschool or kindergarten and the lower grades around the world but also from the bottom up.
Tell me a little bit your work and how you see this playing out in education around the world.
BRID CONNEELY: We’re talking about the Eco-Schools Program which is called various other names in various countries. In Ireland, for instance, it’s called “Green School.” In the United States of America, it’s called “Eco-Schools.”
Organically, it really started with primary and secondary schools but also became kindergartens and pre-schoolers, and also developed in higher education and universities.
The idea behind Eco-Schools is that it is student-led. From the other point of view as well, organically, let’s say, it’s top down but it’s also bottom up. Especially at the EcoCampus level, enablers are important as the leaders of the universities. But the students are very much involved in the whole running of the program ─ the way it’s run.
There are seven steps which is the basic backbone methodology of the Eco-Schools program; and one of those seven steps is to form an Eco-Committee.
The Eco-Committee is generally made up of at least 50% students and the rest would be some leadership, some administration, and some grounds people. It depends on whether it’s a kindergarten or a university. More or less, all aspects of the university ─ the higher education institution ─ are involved in the Eco-Committee.
Then, they do an environmental review to see what’s working and what’s not working. With what’s not working, they make an action plan. The action plan is smart and it’s reviewed all the time.
And then, you want to monitor and evaluate what you’re actually doing, which is Step 4, let’s say. You want to share your information. You want to be actively involved again and you need to come up with an ECO Charter which is about how we do things here and how it’s run in the higher education institutions.
RB: Do you find that we’re going to have environment education and programs that are just a part of the natural fabric of the school experience? And at what point did we almost forget that it was sort of an add-on at some point in time?
I think that here in America, there was a transition where we thought about eating smarter and understanding where our food comes from. It doesn’t mean that wholesale changes have been made but it has changed the consumer experience and the way in which we are sold to when it comes to our agriculture.
Do we see the same happening in education where if we’re focusing on the environment and we’re looking at eco-schools and the ways in which we can incorporate students along with adults in leadership positions that it just becomes a part of what we’re doing, that it’s a natural way of being and it is not something that has to have a program attached to it?
BC: That will certainly be the best way for it to go around the world. Education for Sustainable Development ─ which is what Eco-Schools is ─ is a lifelong learning experience. That’s for the leaders, you and me, the people organizing, and for the students.
The UNESCO programs, the GAP program, the UN conferences ─ that’s where they’re trying to go with it and it’s where I would like to see it going.
But it still has a long way to go before it’s part of everything, before we see all aspects of education as Education for Sustainable Development, as doing the right thing environmentally, and as social justice for all integrating proper quality education.
We’re very much involved with the SDGs now; that’s 13 years down the line. I would imagine that there’s going to be a huge improvement in what you’ve just described that all education is taking sustainability, social justice, inequalities, gender equality, all of those types of thing that are being taken into focus all the way through each subjects, through all subjects.
RB: We’re seeing an expansion in the U.S. of departments within public school districts that are sustainability departments and we’re finding that if you can tie into existing foundations and things that are commonplace, or that are sort of bleeding-edge trends in education, you can then start to have conversations around sustainability.
An example would be project-based learning or design thinking. Have you seen this in your part of the world and do you think that that is literally sustainable as we try to make this more commonplace?
BC: I certainly do and there’s been huge progress in the United States with project-based learning. We work with it quite a lot. We work with it in other countries as well. In Brazil, we’ve got a project going there. In Italy and in Australia, we’re working on project-based learning with regards to sustainability. I see it more and more being part and parcel of everyday school.
RB: Tell me about the programs or the thought behind the leaders. I think it’s one thing to tie into the youth of today and their already ingrained desire to understand a little bit more about their environment, the role that they play, equality ─ especially for the older students. How can we change the attitudes and the mindsets of those leading our schools and our districts or regions so that we have an understanding?
We’ve seen errors along the way. We’ve seen it with technology where we’re struggling so we put something out there; we make big purchases and we have a fantastic press release that we think sort of tempers the natives who might be concerned that we’re not giving our children everything that we have.
But that doesn’t really solve the problem.
So how can we better inform leaders of the school and the city level to make this a part of what we’re doing and to better evaluate the curriculum that we do have changes that need to be made with sustainability in mind? Can we do this in a very meaningful and thoughtful way?
BC: I think that more and more we need to have a joined-up approach. We’ve got the Global Action Program which is run by UNESCO, which is run by the U.N. Their last conference was in Ottawa in March. And you’re talking about huge organizations that were promoting the idea of ESD and insisting that businesses, governments, societies, this idea of the whole institutional approach and then that brings us back to Eco-Schools again because Eco-Schools is a whole institution approach.
If have this whole institution approach, if you have it at universities, you’re working with your communities.
I think the whole institution approach is the answer to your question, in a way, because you’re dealing with formal education. You’re dealing with informal education. You’re dealing with organizational culture. You’re evaluating as you go. And you’re using it with sort of a technical and economical organizational practice in order to link all of those communities including the outside community and including the municipalities.
RB: How would we know if we walked into a school that it was an Eco-School, that it was a school that was practicing everything that you and your team around the world are working toward?
BC: The main thing is that you would actually see a green flag because the eco label we use is a green flag which has got our logo on it. That would be flying high in the wind, hopefully. But, otherwise, you would probably not see any litter because litter would be one of the themes. There might definitely be a school garden which would be used by the community and by the pupils.
If you stopped and spoke to one of the pupils or one of the teachers, they would say, “Yes, of course, we work with Eco-Schools. We work with Education Sustainability Development. We have a whole institution approach.” Everybody in the school would know what’s going on with regard to linking ESD to the formal curriculum.
RB: Let’s talk about engagement. That is globally known as a challenge in education. It’s making education interesting for children in a world where it’s very hard to keep up with the technology and the opportunities that are out there and keep the attention of the young people in classrooms.
What can we learn from sustainability when we think about future careers? How can we make the curriculum and the experience for students who are practicing ESD globally in a way that says, “Look, this could be an opportunity to learn something ─ to learn a skill, to learn a way of thinking that could lead to the rest of your life in a very meaningful manner”?
BC: Once again, you do have a very good program in the United States ─ there’s a green paper on it or a white paper. I’m not quite sure what you call it. And so, there’s a lot of time and effort that have been put into promoting the green economy.
With regard to students, we’re trying to evaluate and look at how the program is working, how it’s doing, and how we can improve it. It’s easy enough to do that in a national situation but not so much in the international situation.
What we’re discovering again and again with children and young people who are involved in Education for Sustainable Development at a young age is that it seems to stick with them. And when they go to university, they look for it.
That’s actually how the EcoCampus began. It was youngsters who had been involved in the program in their own schools in Iceland, Russia, and in Ireland, who, at around about the same time, went to university and went to the administrative director and said, “Where is the Eco-Committee?”
The directors were far-seeing and often bright eyed enough to say, “Okay, what is this type of program? We better start working on it.”
And so, what we’re discovering is that it’s the kids who are pushing the leaders. So we need to focus on the leaders of the institutions to be more out there and more available and more willing to be working with ESD and the institution.
RB: I almost envision that this is a bit of a battle. We’re tackling capitalism to a large degree and antiquated thought processes and approaches just to society and building of communities in cities.
And so, is there a soldier mentality? What’s the thing that drives you everyday to continue what you’re doing in such a passionate manner?
BC: It’s the small things; it is the little things. I don’t travel too much but the program is being implemented in 64 countries so I often do programs like this where I’m speaking to a crowd of young people. And one little thing that a young person does is to come home to his or her parents and say, “Hey, what are you doing? Turn off the light. There’s wind out today. Put the drying out on the line. You don’t need to use the automatic electric dryer.”
If everybody does that, then we are actually making a difference. And we’ve got millions of kids doing that.
So what impassions me, what gives me hope is that young people are actually doing it more and more and they’re getting their parents on board ─ their aunts and uncles and their teachers and so on and so forth.
I see that there is hope for us. There is a future in Education for Sustainable Development because of the children.
RB: As a parent, first and foremost, I appreciate what you’re doing for planet Earth in that regard, and I’m glad that you are looking at the entire planet in your approach. And, obviously, it’s taking hold and people are listening; and that means that it’s good and it’s thoughtful and it provides meaning for people because that’s when they buy in and they’re engaged.
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