One day while working with some middle school students on a field exploration of the varied ecosystems on a nature preserve adjacent to their school I had an epiphany.
The students were recalling the animal species they had observed in each of their assigned ecosystems. The students expressed surprise at how many species occurred in multiple ecosystems. Now, the wood frog doesn’t say to itself, ‘hey, I’m leaving the forest and entering the riverbank’ – it’s a continuous, interconnected whole to all of the other living things with whom we share this planet. But somehow the kids had missed this —and it struck me: we took the world apart—so we could understand it, so we could explain it, and so we could teach it—but we never put it back together whole again.
Since that day I’ve thought a lot about it. I’ve thought about how my sixth grade students couldn’t seem to transfer learning from one classroom to another, until the day that their science teacher and I stood side by side and explained, yet again, how to write an essay, and how what one of us taught them was also true in the other’s classroom, and in the world. For true learning to happen, students must be able to transfer their understanding from one situation and apply it in a new and unfamiliar setting. But in so many cases this isn’t what’s happening. Curriculum is being designed to cover infinite content, rather than being organized around big ideas that will facilitate this transfer of understanding—yet we wonder why students can’t connect the dots. There is a frenzied focus on math and literacy at the expense of all other disciplines—but without science, social studies, or the arts, what is there to count or communicate about?
I believe that education for sustainability offers a remedy to the disconnected, disjointed state of education.
I first heard the term ‘education for sustainability’ (EFS) at Shelburne Farms, though I was practicing elements of EFS long before—from my earliest teaching experiences introducing elementary students to stream-keeping, to my sixth grade literacy classroom where we returned to the essential question How do living things adapt to changes in their environment? habitually over the course of the year.
EFS seeks to prepare learners with the knowledge, skills, and understanding necessary to meet the challenges of the future, providing a lens that considers environmental & ecological integrity, economic vitality, and social justice/equity. Building upon big ideas, such as systems-thinking, interdependence, and community, EFS uses place-based education as the context, service-learning as a major strategy, and sustainable communities as the goal
I believe that if as educators we provide students with: an opportunity to develop a deep knowledge of and sense of their place- both the human and natural communities that they are part of; experiences that help them understand the interconnectedness of the world; and opportunities to make a difference in their community; then we are nurturing the development of engaged citizens involved in creating sustainable and democratic communities.
Since my epiphany that day, I have been thinking how I want to “make the world whole again” for our students. I am interested in how reintegration of the content areas in the curriculum, organized around the big ideas of sustainability, impacts student learning. Specifically, I am interested in studying how integrated curriculum, carried out in a place- and project-based context, impacts student performance: both by traditional measures, such as standardized tests, as well as by other measures, like performance-based assessment and student engagement.
-As a curriculum specialist, working with the Sustainable Schools Project, Emily provides support to educators, conducts professional development workshops, writes curriculum, and serves as a consulting teacher. Emily is also teaches third grade in Cornwall, VT, and moonlights as a visiting lecturer in education studies at Middlebury College.
See some of Emily's other work here: