I am not one of those parents who, some years back, seized upon the chance to read the Harry Potter books to my oldest son. To the contrary, my first response was to worry about how their dark themes might influence him, and how I might handle the difficult questions that could arise.
Then one day, I read several chapters for myself and was struck not only by J.K. Rowling’s obvious gift for storytelling, but also by how much she trusts young people and their ability to handle the truth, in all its darkness and hope. Perhaps most importantly, she inspires them to trust in themselves.
Today, we have the opportunity to nurture a similar relationship with young people, by telling them the truth about the world in which they are growing up, sharing our belief in their ability to rise to its challenges, and backing up that belief with action.
This world, of course, contains its growing share of darkness, including climate change, global water shortages, soil contamination, and poor air quality. But it also contains signs of hope, evident, for example, in the rise of green building design, solar, wind, and thermal power, and a new eco-consciousness.
If we give young people the opportunity to develop the essential knowledge, values, and skills of sustainable living—through an appreciation for the laws of nature and how we can best live in harmony with them—they will design solutions we have not yet dreamt of. But this won’t happen without changing our schools.
All the environmental problems we now face, after all, are symptoms of a larger underlying problem: our collective failure to understand and practice sustainable living. And if school is not the obvious place to root out that ignorance and replace it with something better, then what is?
In recent years, a growing number of K-12 schools across the nation have been working to adopt values and practices of sustainability. About 2,000 have constructed buildings that have been or are currently in the process of being certified “green,” up from 1,200 just a year ago. Nearly 9,000 participate in farm-to-school programs that help students understand the importance of local community connections, and provide them with healthy school lunches.
And a small but hardy group of schools, from Maine to Oregon, has been integrating principles of sustainability into their teaching and learning. They are getting students outside, creating meaningful learning experiences that help young people be comfortable in nature, be curious about nature, and, perhaps most importantly, care about nature. They are showing these students their impact on the environment and teaching them the consequences of its neglect.
One such school, a high school in suburban Clackamas, Ore., offers a course in sustainable systems that introduces students to sustainable energy and energy use, agriculture and eating practices, and housing and development, including green schools and homes, as well as the way people travel between the two. Teachers of other subjects are, more simply, bringing ecological themes into their classes, such as science, history, government, and math, where, for example, students can learn about exponential growth by applying it to the study of population and its impact on the natural world.
So far, the results of these and similar efforts are impressive. A growing body of research shows that engaging students in the experiential or place-based learning so central to schooling for sustainability leads to improved academic achievement, test scores, behavior, problem-solving, and thinking skills.
What’s more, green buildings have been found to support good health and save money. California’s state architect, for example, has projected that for every dollar put into grid neutrality or higher energy efficiency, schools save $10 to $20 in operations costs over time.
And an increased focus on healthy lunches and school gardens not only persuades more kids to eat their vegetables, but also gives them the opportunity to experience a basic ecological reality: Energy flows from the sun to the plant to the tomato and, ultimately, to themselves. The learning experience, in other words, offers students a visceral reminder that they too are a part of nature.
In the years since I was inspired to pick up J.K. Rowling’s books and read all seven to my son (three times), I never regretted my decision to act on a greater trust in what young people are capable of. Surely schooling that prepares them to thrive in the challenging world they will inherit is also worthy of our trust.
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as Educating for the Environment