Sustainability in Education: Enhancing quality and resilience

Taken from and by Tamanna Rumee


As highlighted in Agenda 2030 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ensuring quality education that offers inclusive, equitable and lifelong learning opportunities for all is critical for enabling attainment of other SDGs and advancing the progress of any nation. Nurturing children in early stages of education, assisting with development of requisite life skills while tapping their learning progress, ensuring in-depth understanding of concepts for appropriate application of knowledge, and seamless transition from school to work foster a steep learning curve and productive outcomes.

It becomes imperative to adopt an approach that goes beyond the prescribed textbooks and invites experiential learning practices for holistic development of all learners. In this regard, long term goals in effective teaching learning methods and subsequent results call for capacity building of students, teachers, authorities at local, state, district, and national levels.

The idea of sustainability must be embedded in the larger school curriculum, culture, values, and reflect in daily activities of all stakeholders. Global best practices suggest that involvement of parents and the larger community in the entire process through a whole-school approach and linking the curricula to hands-on activities proves to be instrumental. Inculcating 21st century skills such as critical thinking and problem solving is important for students to be able to view a given problem through different perspectives, identify gaps, and design innovative solutions. Encouraging students to ask questions and analyse situations would help stimulate higher order thinking and account for various nuances through evidence-based data.

Active on-ground impact work by students complemented by the functioning of the institutes would yield valuable insights on overall sustainability. For example, besides imparting information on climate change via lessons, relevant activities and demonstrations undertaken to boost knowledge coupled with climate resilient infrastructure of the institute itself can be fruitful. It thus, strives to shape innovative and creative mindsets to tackle the prevailing socio-economic and environmental concerns and instill positive attitudes contributing to personality development.

Hence, a four-tier checkpoint may be considered for sustainability in the education sector:

  • All stakeholders are actively engaged and well-equipped with appropriate knowledge and resources in experiential learning opportunities
  • Capacity-building of stakeholders is prioritised as per need to enable effective and equitable learning outcomes catering to long-term goals
  • The learners are able to leverage knowledge in real world situations and display positive results on learning progression through documented data
  • The educational institutions follow cost-effective, socially just and environmentally sustainable practices with a good governance system

Impact of sustainability in education: ripple effects

UNESCO recognises quality education as a human right and deems it essential to give impetus to sustainable development of any nation. It becomes critical for educational institutions to integrate fundamental themes of sustainable development in their curricula according to respective levels and clearly define the same. Quality education is intricately interlinked with the other 16 goals and is crucial for enabling sensitisation towards concepts such as circular economy, lifecycle analysis, planetary boundaries, and greenwashing.

Sustainability in education seeks to address problems pertaining to increasing drop-out rates at subsequent levels, low education quality and instructional delivery, lagging results despite rising gross enrolment ratios, inadequate teacher training, and exam-oriented approaches. Furthermore, it plays a role in making students green job ready and builds capacities to enable them to assess long-term impacts of projects undertaken.

A dual impact in terms of knowledge on sustainability related concepts and enhancement of capabilities of learners across age-groups, geographies, and varying socio-economic endowments is realised. Following the unprecedented learning crisis caused by Covid-19 pandemic, a systemic change and higher resilience can have a ripple effect across several sectors with a competent population offering their services to tackle major challenges in near future.

Key challenges

There remains a demand-supply gap in qualified teachers and trainers. In order to impart suitable knowledge and guide the youth, rigorous training of the teachers, trainers and education officers is essential which tends to be time consuming and perceived as a liability.

A major attitudinal shift will have to be made to introduce modified teaching-learning practices and overcome a variety of social barriers and stigmas (eg. educating girls in rural areas, mental health sessions, mensurations).

Measurement of individual performances of both teachers and students, capturing difficulties in learning in the school, on the field, and at home, and altering practices to make the learning student-centric needs a comprehensive and intelligent monitoring mechanism.

Owing to the multiple revisions in the definition of ‘development’, ‘sustainability’, and ‘sustainable development’, the terms remain quite subjective. Internal and external influencing factors can hamper people from strictly abiding by a definition in their actions and verbal and non-verbal cues, especially in a short period. This requires proper sensitisation of all stakeholders and elaborate discussions to create room for understanding and reaching a consensus.

Another challenge regarding incorporation of topics of sustainable development is the resource base and difficulties in creation and accessibility of material that will further have to be filtered according to respective disciplines.

Lastly, assessments by the institutional rankings to ensure accountability and transparency in terms of ‘sustainable’ management may be counterproductive. For instance, the ulterior motive of attaining top ranks may incentivise institutions to adopt short-term measures and manipulative media promotions that showcase them as stellar performers in environmental, economic, and social indicators while having achieved negligible progress in this regard. Hence, a balance must be struck between uplifting extrinsic and intrinsic motivational factors for desired impact.

Sustainability Disclosures and Mapping

A framework for sustainability disclosure for schools and universities may be formulated subject to modifications based on autonomy of the respective institutes. Student-centred learning modules, active stakeholder participation in decision-making and a constructive feedback mechanism is instrumental in implementing appropriate mechanisms. Robust monitoring and evaluation mechanisms and documentation to generate valid and credible data would be essential in helping make judgements on greenwashing practices, if any. Monitoring mechanisms may follow the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) indicators for testing effectiveness. Some examples of disclosures in this area are:

Economic disclosures: budget allocation and utilisation comprising salaries for the staff, for projects and initiatives around sustainability, and for ‘greening’ of campus, related reinvestments, savings and benefits, economic impact of a community benefitted by a project, grants and funds received and utilised, budget for monitoring and evaluation of practices in this regard.

Social disclosures: Skill-development and training of stakeholders, records of physical and mental health based on school/university environment, social impact of projects employing communities, discussion forums and collaborations between schools and teachers for knowledge transfers and best practices, and student-centric teaching methods. The objective here is to ensure equitable opportunities for all learners and tailoring teaching learning methods to suit specific needs.

Qualitative assessments to understand the idea of sustainability that students hold and how it changes over time. An annual review of database comprising engagement of students at various platforms, practices aligning with the Global Goals, and any challenges faced may be carried out.

Environmental disclosures: Rainwater harvesting, wastewater management, food security, composting, solar energy, and infrastructural and campus design along with the type of transport and fuel used in school buses and material of utensils available in canteens and so on. Measures to track understanding of students and application of learnings in their homes would also have to be set up.

Performance disclosures: capture student, parents, and teacher progress in learning, feedbacks on key insights by individuals, feedbacks by professional mentors, analysis of scores in class assessments and evaluation methods as the structure is reformed to draft age and grade specific application-based questions. A digital monitoring system developed for feeding and storing such data could be revolutionary.

The best practices of sustainability disclosures in education sector by Shawe et al. (2019) further validate these categories. It would be imperative to define responsibilities and ensure incentives for accountability and transparency in the process. Cross-college/school conferences can be conducted annually for sharing of resources and ideas through disclosure reports.

Leading examples of sustainability in education

The most comprehensive and successful example of sustainable schools is that of the global Eco-Schools Programme that follows a seven-step methodology for a whole-school approach across several thematic areas. This is a structured yet flexible approach that has proved to be adaptable across countries, advocating the steps of conducting an environmental review, drafting an action plan, informing and involving the community, linking the curriculum to prescribed hands-on material, producing an eco-code and monitoring and documenting the entire process.

TERI School of Advanced Studies is an exemplar higher education institute dedicated to sustainability as a core principle in its functioning. All disciplines hold sustainability at the heart of their curricula. Rigorous field-visits and hands-on activities with carefully crafted application-based assessments are prioritised. The campus has several features of solar design, energy-efficiency and water and waste management systems. The student Hubs of the college encourage students to engage in activities and projects that accelerate the idea of sustainability. A strong mentor-mentee system and feedback mechanism after each semester encourages effective communication and performance check for the faculty.

Business schools have started to integrate sustainability, gaining impetus from Ban ki Moon’s brainchild Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), a six-principle guide for business schools and universities across the globe to embed corporate responsibility and sustainability in their syllabus, teaching methods and institutional strategies. Xavier School of Management (XLRI) is a Signatory of PRME. IIM Kozhikode initiated the Phase V Green Campus in January 2020, certified by Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (GRIHA) on account of conservative measures for water, energy, and soil. Additionally, cloud-based conferencing system is used in classrooms for energy efficiency.

Taylor et al. (2019) have suggested cost-effective strategies of electronically connecting secondary schools for resource sharing coupled with assistance in terms of finance and capacity-building that can be contextualised in developing countries like India.

A unique case is of Puvidham school in Tamil Nadu that follows the Gandhian philosophy of Nai Taleem by encouraging ‘learning through work and learning from nature’. It reflects sustainability in teaching through its methods of gaining on-ground experience via interaction with communities. For example, students carry out activities of individually nurturing their own plants as they learn about its various parts, functions, and roles. It focuses on organic farming techniques and promote zero-waste lifestyle. Proximity to nature ignites environmental conscientiousness and inculcates conservative practices at an early age. Puvidham also offers a residential programme of 11 months for gap year students, home-schoolers and adults on sustainable living and entrepreneurship.

Given such models and their strengths and weaknesses, tapping world-class learning methods for sustainability may have a head start but would still require massive investments and commitments. Systems thinking and design fosters synergies and offers strategic means to mitigate risks for actualisation of the SDGs and can have massive impact in strengthening policies for sustainability in education.


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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Center for Research and Implementation of Sustainable Practices or the CRISP Global.