NGO promotes learning methods for our new and future world

Cape Breton University has made education for sustainability a core focus in its bachelor of education degree, with every student completing a course called “Teaching and   Learning for a Sustainable Future.”

Cape Breton University has made education for sustainability a core focus in its bachelor of education degree, with every student completing a course called “Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future.”

­­The following is an extended version of an interview that was first published at

Launched in the early 90s, Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF) is a pioneer in sustainability education. The NGO supports educators in bringing inquiry-based learning to the classroom, engaging students in authentic, community-based learning that emphasizes the connections between and within all life systems.

Pamela Schwartzberg, the organization’s president and CEO, describes LSF’s mission and services.

What are some of the primary factors driving your work?

First, we’re clearly on a path that is unsustainable. Our challenge is learning to live more sustainably on the planet, which is about education.

Second is the expanding role of technology. It is estimated that there are now 3.5 billion Google searches per day – technology is changing the way we access information.

The final piece is about student engagement. Research by the Canadian Education Association found that only 40 per cent of our students are engaged in their learning. We know the content and the context of education is changing, but we also know that our kids aren’t engaged, and there is lots of research on how kids learn best.

All of these factors came together for us to identify methods of teaching and learning that address the issues of the changing world, dealing with complexity, and student engagement.

What methods does LSF use to transfer these approaches into the classroom?

We work at a number of different levels.

We work with policy leaders within ministries, because curriculum content and pedagogy are very important.

For teachers, we try to provide the best resources that we can on sustainability themes, including a searchable database called Resources for Rethinking that just won best project at the Clean 50 summit. There are about 1,250 resources on the database in English and French that are searchable by jurisdiction, subject, grade and sustainability theme.

All of the resources are reviewed by teachers for teachers. Most are downloadable immediately, and most are free. It makes it easy for busy teachers to access the best resources.

We also provide professional development. The biggest challenge in education right now is changing the way teachers engage with their students in the classroom, moving from “sage on the stage” to “guide at the side.” LSF’s workshops model for teachers the ways of teaching that follow student interest, real-world learning, looking at alternative perspectives, and allowing students to think critically and act upon their learning.

Ministries across the country are embracing the need for inquiry-based and transformational learning, but very little is invested in teacher training.

LSF delivers workshops modeling the methods teachers will use with their students. Our workshops are usually two or three days, and at the end of the first day, participants are often uncomfortable. They are so used to the information transfer model: “Here is the kit, here’s how you teach it and here is the test.” By the end of the second day, they’ve had the ah-ha moment where they’ve realized they’ve just experienced a new way of learning, and they’re excited to share it with their students.

Finally, we model these approaches for teachers in the classroom.

In your view, how are these approaches better preparing students for the world they’ll live in as adults?

We need to prepare students to be responsible, active citizens as well as entrepreneurs, employees and consumers. That is the broader purpose of education that we see being embraced across the country; certainly B.C., Alberta and Ontario have embraced that bigger vision of education. Once we have that vision, we have to equip students with the knowledge, skills, perspectives, practices and values to address the complex issues we have been talking about. Finally, we must make sure they’re engaged academically and intellectually.

We’re preparing these students for jobs, yet we don’t know what those jobs will be. This has to challenge the role of teacher as the ‘sage on the stage,’ to more of a guide and coach role. Students have to know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, and that has to be learned and directed. There is a very important role for direct instruction – but there an equally important role for exploration and applied learning.

Research shows that students learn better when they’re engaged. We know, for example, that land-based learning engages our First Nations students. We don’t do a lot of future thinking in education, for any students. But students can have aspirations and wonder about the future. They can think about creating the future. All the focus on creativity, wonder, aspirations, on real-world and authentic learning are all part of that important new approach.

What would you like to see change?

I’m thrilled about the current federal and provincial focus on climate change and the action plans coming out. But there is one enormous gap in all of them, and that is the role of education. The success of the blue box recycling program was in great part driven by kids coming home from school and [urging their parents]. The same is true of anti-smoking and anti-drinking movements. Our children are huge social change agents. They’re not as entrenched in the status quo as we are. They challenge and question us.

The focus on climate change in curriculum is there, but it’s very minimal. We’ve got a huge gap in teacher preparation, to open up the inquiry around climate change in order to get kids to think critically about it. Will students have the opportunity to discuss these issues in the classroom? How are they being discussed?

We’re not just talking about the science of climate change, which is in grade 10 science. We’re talking about the social, economic, equity and viability issues. If you want a population that will accept the kinds of challenges we have ahead of us, such as taxes and cap and trade on carbon, that population will need to understand the impacts and implications of climate change along with mitigation and adaptation.

We’re not seeing that translated into education. My clarion call is we really need to make this a priority.