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A time for change: Developing a coherent sustainability curriculum

9 min read
ELIZABETH LUPTON AND HANNAH WHAITES, PRIMARY CURRICULUM, UNITED LEARNING, UK

The Department for Education recognises the important role that education and children’s services should have in all aspects of sustainability. In their sustainability and climate strategy for the education and children’s services system, they set out four strategic aims: 1. to provide ‘excellence in education and skills for a changing world’; 2. to mitigate the effects of climate change by reaching net zero; 3. to adapt the system to the changing climate; and 4. to ensure a better environment for future generations (DfE, 2022a).

In meeting these aims, climate education is highlighted as the first key action area. It is vital that children and young people – who are increasingly concerned about climate change from a younger age – are prepared for the challenges and opportunities that they will face in the changing world. In particular, the DfE highlights the need for:

  1. learning about the natural environment
  2. delivering support for teachers
  3. learning in the natural environment.

 

While this strategy has many useful aspects, it leaves some questions unanswered. Firstly, the strategy has a relatively narrow focus on climate education; it is less clear about wider issues of sustainability or biodiversity. Secondly, the strategy’s recommended actions will be introduced gradually and are expected to be in place by 2030, which many would consider too slow to effect the changes needed. Finally, while the strategy reinforces the importance of action, it does not provide clear, specific guidance for schools on how to implement it in the short term. Dunlop and Rushton (2022) have warned that the draft strategy is at risk of becoming a ‘placebo policy’, as it ‘repurposes and reframes existing policy’ but ‘introduces few fundamental changes’.

In terms of curriculum, the DfE have stated that climate education should be interdisciplinary: it should be taught through science, geography and citizenship programmes. This is reflected in current practice: Howard-Jones et al.’s (2021, p. 1160) study found that ‘teachers favoured a cross-curricular approach’. 

However, there are lessons to be learnt from past introductions of cross-curricular themes. For example, when the original designers of the National Curriculum took the view that citizenship would be better taught through several curriculum subjects as a ‘cross-curricular theme’, there was no clear articulation of which elements of substantive knowledge should be taught within each subject. There was, in effect, no curriculum. Even if aspects of the theme were covered within the subject disciplines, without clear sequencing of knowledge, the links between disciplines could not be made and any framework was not coherent.

A poor implementation of sustainability as an interdisciplinary ‘theme’ could result in the same outcome, where students encounter ideas and content sporadically, but build no understanding in any depth. 

In 2021/22, United Learning began to audit our curriculum to identify existing sustainability links, with the aim of developing a curriculum with a coherent, interdisciplinary approach, which would improve the delivery of sustainability and climate education within Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) to Key Stage 2. 

What follows describes the steps that we took; we hope that they may provide an approach that other schools could replicate or build from.

What should be included in a ‘sustainability curriculum’?

The first discussions centred around what a sustainability curriculum should include, because education about these issues should focus on more than just climate change.

We grouped the knowledge and concepts of sustainability into three strands:

  1. Biodiversity: Students should leave primary school with a well-developed understanding of what biodiversity is (the vast array of life that can be found on this planet and the differences between the individuals of a given species); why it is important; why it is threatened; and the actions that can be taken locally, nationally and globally to protect it
  2. Climate change: By the time students leave primary school, they should understand the difference between the natural and enhanced greenhouse effect, the human activities responsible for the enhanced greenhouse effect, and a range of adaptations and mitigations that can be taken at local, national and global levels
  3. Living sustainably: This rather broad strand includes how we can manage natural resources sustainably, and societal approaches to waste management.

 

Of course, the three strands overlap. How humans manage natural resources can contribute to the rate of climate change; this has a direct impact on the biodiversity of Earth, which in turn can further compound the climate change problem. But these three strands provide a useful framework through which to sequence knowledge.

How should a sustainability curriculum be sequenced?

Much has been written about the importance of purposeful sequencing in a coherent curriculum, and Ashbee has neatly summarised why ‘the order in which things are taught matters’ (2021, p. 54). Substantive (conceptual and procedural) and disciplinary knowledge need to be deliberately sequenced so that students are taught new knowledge in small steps, often moving from the general to the abstract; students are given the opportunity to review knowledge frequently, ideally interweaved with other disciplines; and students build on knowledge to develop a deeper understanding of broader concepts over time. The importance of sequencing in the context of sustainability education is recognised by Hoath and Dave (2022) in their sustainability and climate change education report.

Sequencing concepts

Concepts such as pollution, waste and biodiversity need to be developed over time. For biodiversity, we begin with the simple idea that ‘there is a huge range of plants and animals in the world’, and students in EYFS and Key Stage 1 name and classify an increasingly wide range of organisms. Students can then build on this when being taught why we observe variation in a population (inherited and environmental) and how it can be measured in Key Stage 2.

When teaching students about waste, we begin with teaching tangible examples, such as food waste, before considering waste products from industry and the efficiency of production processes. These concepts will be taught in different contexts – in science, when considering food waste; in D&T, in relation to manufacturing processes; in history, when considering hunter-gatherers’ use of whole animals – but the concepts will be revisited and built upon in a coherent way.

Sequencing to prevent misconceptions and misunderstandings

Rosenshine (2010), emphasises the importance of introducing concepts in small steps, and it is important that a curriculum is sequenced so that it recognises potential misconceptions and prevents them from forming. A systematic review of research by Monroe et al. (2017) identified this as an important theme in climate change education. For example, students can often conflate environmental issues such as the enhanced greenhouse effect and ozone depletion. These two ideas should therefore be sequenced and taught separately to prevent misconceptions from forming. 

Sequencing vocabulary

The sequencing of vocabulary is important in any curriculum subject; we would not expect students to understand complex words until they have been explicitly taught. It is perhaps even more important in a sustainability curriculum, both because vocabulary may be introduced in different subjects (often science or geography but not necessarily so) and because it is used in everyday discourse, often incorrectly. Key words and their definitions therefore need to be introduced methodically.

Definitions also need to be accessible. Should the definition of a necessary word be too difficult for students to understand, placeholder definitions can be used. For example, the term ‘species’ (a word explicitly mentioned in the DfE strategy) is often part of a Key Stage 1 curriculum. It is helpful to use the word because it is difficult to describe the different groups of animals and plants without doing so. But it is introduced with a placeholder definition (‘a type of plant or animal’) that is revisited and superseded in Year 4 (with ‘a group of individuals that can breed to produce fertile offspring’), only once students have been taught more about reproduction and have the prerequisite knowledge to understand the scientifically accepted definition.

This careful sequencing of vocabulary is a useful tool for making meaningful links with other subjects. For example, if teachers write a model text in English to persuade people to take action on climate change, they will know the vocabulary, definitions and concepts that are accessible to students. If considering God’s creation according to Genesis in religious education, teachers know exactly how to refer to biodiversity and can encourage students to make these explicit links.

The crucial point to remember is that the vocabulary is explicitly taught in the most relevant context or subject, before being applied and revisited in other curriculum areas.

How should a sustainability curriculum be delivered?

Once the sequencing of knowledge had been determined, we needed to consider how the content was taught.

Lessons must be objective and aligned to the published guidance on schools’ legal duties on political impartiality (DfE, 2022b). Many of the issues that are covered in the curriculum will be based on scientific, objective facts and should be taught as such. Other issues – particularly those that relate to the ways in which climate change can be addressed – are subject to different political views, and similarly need to be taught as such to students.

Lessons must be balanced; they need to tread the line between being realistic about the scale of the challenges faced and providing stories of hope. Students need to understand that there are ways in which humans can address issues, and they should be exposed to case studies – in local and global contexts – that are having positive impacts.

Lessons must be relevant to students. In Monroe et al.’s (2017, p. 791) systematic research review of climate change education strategies, it was noted that ‘focusing on personally relevant and meaningful information’, taught using engaging methods, is vital. Students need to see the issues – and the solutions – at a local level and be taught how they sit within the global picture.

Where next?

Although we have made good progress, there are still areas for development.

Our key priority is to develop subject knowledge and confidence in teachers. The Great Teaching Toolkit evidence review identifies the importance of teachers ‘understand[ing] the content they are teaching and how it is learnt’ and how ‘having a deep and fluent knowledge of this content’ is important (Coe et al,. 2020, p. 17). This subject knowledge has been identified as a particular barrier to high-quality sustainability education (Dunlop and Rushton, 2022).

Subject knowledge packs for teachers will help to give them the confidence to know what they should be teaching, how this sits in students’ wider understanding of sustainability, and key misconceptions to pre-empt and address. 

In future, we also hope to expand the reach of the curriculum by using it to support whole-school events that are not repetitive each year; build links to green careers into the curriculum; forge connections with industry; and audit resources from external providers to assist our teachers in their selection of appropriate material for their students.

Conclusion

The explicit teaching of knowledge in a conceptually coherent sustainability curriculum – which spans multiple subjects – is hugely challenging. It has taken dedicated subject and curriculum lead time to develop the sequence and to ensure that all our curriculum subjects align to it. It is a harder undertaking in smaller schools with smaller subject teams – but the need is no less urgent and important.

While the exact actions may look different, the underlying principles of deciding what you want to teach, sequencing vocabulary, approaching the subject with objectivity and balance, and providing content that is relevant to your students can be applied in all schools. This way, all young people will be prepared for the challenges and opportunities ahead of them.

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