Thursday, February 2, 2023
Javier Martín, a secondary school Geography and History teacher, asked his students, at the end of last year, to give him the notebooks in which they had taken notes during class. His idea was to evaluate their ability to summarize and transcribe what was truly important. But he saw something he hadn't counted on: most had written on only one side of each page.
"I asked them why they hadn't used both and told them that what they were doing was economically and environmentally wasteful. And they answered me, looking at me with wide eyes, as if I had suffered a sudden attack of madness: “What's the difference? If the notebook runs out, you buy another one."
Martín is a teacher at a Spanish charter school and is one of a class of teachers who, fortunately more and more widespread, take environmental education seriously in the classroom. This subject is included in the latest educational reform of 2020, the LOMLOE, although not as a subject, but as across-the board training in the curriculum.
Both public and private institutions are making efforts to include environmental education in schools, as reported by the Spanish Network for Sustainable Development (REDS). To name a few: Agenda 21 Escolar (Albacete, Galicia, Madrid, Malaga, Basque Country, Santa Eulalia, San Feliu de Llobregat, etc); Aldea (Andalusia); Centres ecoambientals (Balearic Islands); Escoles Verdes (Catalonia); Centros Educativos hacia la Sostenibilidad (La Rioja); Escuelas Sostenibles (Navarre); Educar hoy por un Madrid más Sostenible (Madrid City Council); Escuelas para la Sostenibilidad (Palencia); Proyecto RedECOS (Canarias); Escoles + Sostenibles (Barcelona); and so on.
In these projects, “the educational community works on the implementation of experiences that aim to develop the culture of sustainability across the board; where dialogue-based relationships are created between students, teachers, families and institutions in conducting diagnoses in schools or municipal entities to propose measures for improvement in terms of sustainability,” explained REDS. From waste management and environmental biodiversity to mobility, water, energy, responsible consumption and more... These practices “favor sustainable management, democratic participation and curricular innovation in educational centers and the improvement of municipal life,”, the entity added. There are already many centers that have joined these initiatives, showing that this is the way forward for environmental education to permeate the classroom as it should.
An independent and necessary subject
Based on the provisions of the LOMLOE, which includes this subject as across-the-board training in the educational curriculum, each Autonomous Community has the authority to design its own teaching plans. However, it is the teachers who face the challenge of incorporating a topic that so relevant to today's society into their programs: “Sometimes, children's lack of interest in the environment is understandable; they’re also uninterested in world literature, which is common among adolescents. The difference is that as teachers we must instill in them that global warming and loss of biodiversity are priority issues,” says Martín. In this regard, he acknowledges that some teachers at his center would like to devote more time to these topics, but they cannot always cover so much content. “The challenge is to create an environmental training structure within a program that is already very extensive and barely fits into a single school year.”
Some subjects are better suited than others to include sustainability as a subject. Ana Laredo, a chemist who teaches science and technology subjects at another school, tries to incorporate environmental awareness in all her classes: “I teach biology and geology, closely linked to environmental education. But we need even more support from the administration in terms of qualified personnel," she says.
Reverse teaching: from climate change to general chemistry
As a scientist, Laredo points out that environmental education should take the place of other more superfluous subjects. The expert proposes to turn the tables: "Often, science agendas could be studied in reverse order, beginning precisely with the problems of climate change. For example, do an educational project where you start by talking about something as topical as global warming and, from there, explain many things, such as general chemistry concepts. And for that, it is appropriate to have a laboratory or an urban garden, where students can see firsthand the environmental problems and their possible solutions." This "on-the-ground" training and direct contact with natural resources is essential to "understand the importance of our environment and the biodiversity crisis we are suffering," she says.
What about university education?
Environmental Sciences, Forestry and Natural Environment Engineering, Environmental Sciences and History, Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Engineering... These are defined as degrees, but not bachelor's degrees. These are some examples of how the importance of environmental awareness has been incorporated into higher education curricula. It is a step, but there is still a long way to go.
A study on the need for across-the-board environmental education at the University by Magaly Elizabeth Peñafiel, a specialist in Environmental Management and Green Areas at the University of Guayaquil, points to the need to address the complex climate problems arising from human interaction with greater community environmental awareness: “We need environmental literacy that requires the identification of its problems, the understanding of social, historical and ecological processes and the development of an environmental sensitivity that leads to a search for solutions,” the report stresses.
A necessary reflection in our educational system: “There is a need to foster citizen awareness through the development of a culture of environmental values in which universities and teachers are called upon to achieve changes in the organization and execution of teaching activities,” says Peñafiel. “The key is to strengthen environmental values and attitudes immersed in academic practices.”
Examples to look to
In Spain, the foundations already exist for an effective and definitively integrated environmental education, but more proactivity is still required.
As reported by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, climate change will be present in all primary and secondary classrooms. “Teaching about this issue was already important in the Finnish education system, and the new climate curriculum is being developed with the idea that it should be part of every subject," the Ministry explains. In fact, “some NGOs have developed materials on climate change and the circular economy, and have made them available for teachers to use freely.”
In Spain, there are also some centers that have taken the environmental initiative. The Hurchillo - Orihuela public school, in Alicante, was recognized in 2019 with the Naos Award for the promotion of sustainable and healthy eating in the school environment. The fruit and vegetables served in the cafeteria are seasonal and local, and they educate in a circular life model by reducing plastics and pastries to zero, in addition to having a school garden where students learn the cycles of agriculture.
These types of projects are generally found in small towns: Hurchillo is a hamlet of Orihuela, with a population of barely more than 2,000. “The challenge is for them to emerge in large schools in the cities as well, where it is much more complicated because the number of students and the infrastructure are much greater,” says Martín, concluding: “But when we achieve something like this, environmental education will be a reality throughout the country.”
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