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Learning our way to a sustainable future

Sat 22nd August 2020 - Blog Posts

Can the coronavirus pandemic be viewed as a ‘fire drill’ for what is likely to follow from the climate and biodiversity emergencies?

In issue 84 of Teaching Scotland, GTC Scotland’s Ken Muir asked: “Does the [Covid-19] crisis we are enduring demonstrate sufficiently why Learning for Sustainability, essential for the wellbeing of all, is such an integral part of our Professional Standards?” In this article published in issue 84 of Teaching Scotland LfS Scotland Director, Professor Pete Higgins with Beth Christie, Betsy King and Kirsten Leask, address three related questions:

1. What is it that the crisis can demonstrate regarding sustainability?

2. In what way is this sufficient to commit teachers/educators to address it?

3. How do we respond to ensure our learners flourish, now and in the future?


An understanding of sustainability begins with the realisation that we evolved in a complex, interdependent, biodiverse world with its associated environmental conditions (including climate). Any significant disruption will have implications for the stability of these natural systems, their long-term future, and that of all living things on the planet. Our sustainability is inextricably linked with these systems; we are part-of not apart-from nature. While we may know this, it is easy not to be mindful of it. There are so many urgent issues to respond to; particularly if you are a teacher trying to support young people as we emerge from the pandemic.

Finding evidence of our multiple and interconnected impacts on the sustainability of our planet is not difficult. For example, the executive director of the International Energy Agency recently urged policymakers to respond, saying that we have “six months in which to change the course of the climate crisis and prevent a post-lockdown rebound in greenhouse gas emissions that would overwhelm efforts to stave off climate catastrophe”.

The impact of human activity on others is also of fundamental concern, amplified through the lens of Covid-19. Poverty, gender equality, hunger, human rights and social injustice are vital aspects of a bigger whole that need to be addressed to secure a sustainable future for our young people and the natural world on which we ultimately depend.

Addressing all these concerns together through ‘green and just solutions’ is our best chance of a sustainable future. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), provide a vision and framework for a world where people, planet and prosperity are in balance. We have seen tantalising glimpses of the potential this holds during lockdown.

Building a better world

It is tempting to see the coronavirus as a one-off; a consequence of the wet markets of Wuhan, and nothing to do with the big challenges of sustainability. However, in 2015 it was established that similar diseases (AIDS, SARS and Ebola) originated from animal populations “under severe environmental pressures”, and that “most emerging infectious diseases are driven by human activities”.

Similarly, given the well publicised age-related incidence and death rates of Covid-19, we might see this as a particular threat to older people with underlying health conditions. However, it seems that air pollution has a significant impact on mortality, and this is particularly significant for people in poorer neighbourhoods in our cities, often from BAME communities.

To return to Ken’s question, while the sustainability emergency we face has not changed because of coronavirus, the interdependency of environmental and social justice issues such as poverty, equity and health, and their role as both contributing factors and symptoms of this wider crisis in the natural world is evident. Lise Kingo, Executive Director of the UN’s sustainable business organisation, has argued that “(t)he coronavirus pandemic is ‘just a fire drill’ for what is likely to follow from the climate crisis”.  

Consequently, it seems unthinkable that Learning for Sustainability (LfS) would not remain a central pillar of the Professional Standards and Scottish education policy, and that teachers would not respond. However, in the coming months teachers may be addressing urgent challenges: online learning, social-distancing, health-related issues etc. While LfS could be seen as a distraction, it is an entitlement of learners and underpins what it means to be a teacher in Scotland. So how should we respond? 

Responding to the ‘fire drill’

It is entirely understandable that in the coming months schools will focus on literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing and examinable subjects. However, recent Scottish Government-commissioned research has highlighted the broader educational benefits of LfS in supporting and enhancing the curriculum.

It emphasises the role of outdoor learning, stating that “there is increasingly strong evidence that experiences in nature can boost academic learning, including in subject areas unrelated to the outdoor context”, supporting health and wellbeing, stress-reduction, improved mental health and confidence of young people. This suggests a valuable role for LfS and the outdoors in supporting effective blended learning over the coming months and beyond.

Given the need for innovative and compassionate responses to Covid-19 recovery, approaches focusing on environmental and social justice are urgent. Curriculum for Excellence has sustainability at its heart and embedding this approach into all learning and teaching can support learners to develop the knowledge, skills and values to support our journey towards a more sustainable future.

This may also help learners and their communities to develop a thoughtful national identity, grounded in ‘place’, and to understand, commit to and play their part in responding to the twin climate and biodiversity emergencies and the inspiring aims of the UN SDGs in Scotland. This is vital for our young citizens as they make sense of their choices, and continue their studies or enter employment in hopefully a ‘green, just (and healthy) recovery’. This really would be a new normal worth working towards.


Transformational teaching embedding LfS is already under way. Teachers who have recently achieved GTC Scotland Professional Recognition in Learning for Sustainability through the ‘Making Connections’ CLPL programme, continued to embed sustainability in their day-to-day teaching during lockdown. 

Bonar Bridge Primary School teacher Lisa MacKenzie set a challenge to enable learners and their families to explore the SDGs and consider how they relate to their lives. Learners were asked to lead the conversation and discussion, make decisions about what change was within their reach, create their own action plan with steps towards their ‘change’, supporting their family to join in.

Lisa said: “Pupils and their families embraced the challenge and set themselves targets to work towards one or some SDGs. Actions ranged from using reusable shopping bags (Life Below Water, Clean Water and Sanitation) to planting trees for a future coppice (Climate Action, Life on Land) and growing herbs and vegetables (Zero Hunger). Pupils have been thinking for themselves and making plans and challenges within their reach now, not just in the future.

“These plans are also personal to their family, something they believe in and wanted to change. We will bring together the plans, progress and updates from each family and produce a collective wall display, share good news on our website and at assembly and, more importantly, reconfigure what needs to happen next and how we can use the new-found knowledge and skills of our pupils and families to support this.”