Sustainability begins at school

How do you nurture a healthy environment and social well-being at the same time?

York’s Faculty of Education and the Schulich School of Business believe they have the recipe for success. This month, the two Faculties and the non-profit organization Learning for a Sustainable Future, together with founding supporter Suncor Energy Foundation, have launched the Sustainability Education Academy (SEdA), a one-of-a-kind program that advocates education as a mechanism for social and environmental change. By bringing together for the first time the leaders of Canada’s school boards, education ministries and education faculties, SEdA seeks to inspire discussion and debate about everything from class curricula to school purchasing policies and how to measure successful learning.

“People at the most senior level are best placed to understand and raise awareness about the need for knowledge, skills, perspectives and practices essential to a sustainable future,” says Charles Hopkins (right), York’s UNESCO Chair in Education for Sustainable Development and one of the bright minds behind the project. “They’re also the ones to leverage the resources to make it happen.”

But that doesn’t mean that change will only take place from the top down or that York’s sustainable development specialists are assuming an instructional role in the project.

Environment Canada provided seed funding of $100,000 in early 2005 to kickstart the development of SEdA. This early support facilitated a thorough and consultative approach to the design and development of SEdA, with over 40 key leaders in environmental/sustainability education in addition to consultants and educators taking part in discussions and providing valuable input.

“SEdA is not about telling people what to do,” says Steve Alsop, associate dean of education at York. “It’s a forum to share ideas and uncover ways in which we might critically re-orient education toward society, the environment and other issues of fundamental importance to our future.”

Such a collaborative, hands-on approach is the ideal complement to industry priorities, agrees Gord Lambert (left), vice president of sustainable development for Suncor Energy, Inc., a Calgary-based developer of Canada’s Athabasca oil sands and renewable energy (including wind power and ethanol), and a recognized leader in sustainable development. “Industry has been in a learn-by-doing mode for some time,” he says. “We now realize that if we want to see the concept of sustainable development advanced in Canada it needs to be imbedded within the education curriculum.”

Suncor recently contributed $250,000 to help jumpstart the Sustainability Education Academy beginning with an international forum to be held at York University Feb. 18-21, 2007. The Education Leaders’ Seminar is an opportunity for Canadian educators to rub shoulders with their counterparts from as far away as Australia, the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands. Keynote speakers will include Ann Finlayson, education for sustainable development adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Peter Woods of Australia’s Department of the Environment and Heritage. 

The seminar is also attracting the attention of United Nations members who recognize the importance of education in building a sustainable future. Last year, the UN declared 2005-2014 the UN Decade for Education for Sustainable Development.

York’s ambitious plans for sustainable education teaching and practice have their roots in another successful program launched in 2000 by the Schulich School of Business. The Sustainable Enterprise Academy (SEA) provides corporate and government decision makers with the vision, education, tools and support to champion sustainable development in their own organizations. Already, more than 300 decision makers have benefited from the semi-annual Business Leader Seminars. The next session is scheduled for Oct. 30-Nov. 2 at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

“Shortly after launching the Sustainable Enterprise Academy, we realized that this was just the beginning,” says SEA director Brian Kelly (left). “How we educate our children about the economy, the environment and social issues is a key factor in building sustainable enterprise.”

“As educators, we have much to learn, both in terms of how we teach our children and how we teach our teachers,” agrees Paul Axelrod, York’s dean of education. “At the end of the day, I’d hope our discussions result in a seamless blend of school board directors who want the system to change and teachers who graduate with the capacity to realize their vision.”

Adds Hopkins: “We have an idea, a vision and the best international expertise. More than anything else, SEdA is a voyage of exploration.”