Lessons learnt from the world’s most sustainable schools

This article was written by Amy Nguyen, Founder & Editor of Sustainable & Social, a platform dedicated to the sustainably curious. You can follow Sustainable & Social: @sustainableandsocial

At A Glance

The education system is in a state of flux as the fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic has sparked upheaval in timetables, attendance and traditional learning processes. At a time when the world is awakening to the eminent climate related challenges, it appears the most engaged demographic, are children. Galvanised to protect their future planet, the Strike 4 Climate movement inspired by Greta Thunberg encapsulates the notion that, you are never too small to make a difference.

Informed and inspiring changemakers, who may not have yet reached their sixteenth birthday, are amplifying the urgency for global policy makers to ramp up their commitments to carbon neutrality and planetary resilience.

But, where are they learning all this information? Is it in the classroom? Or instead via social media channels, news outlets and overheard parental dinner conversations? Some have argued orthodox curriculums do little in the way of preparing our future CEOs, doctors and wider workforce for sustainability related issues. The UN Sustainable Development Goal #4 – Access to quality education, would welcome learning that places focus on social enterprise, the value of nature, permaculture farming and holistic practices of mindfulness.

This article reviews the lessons we can learn from the most sustainable schools in the world across Asia, Africa and the West and how we can apply this to challenge presupposed normalised education. It draws on varying elements from the architecture of their campuses to the structure of their curriculums and inventive extra-curricular activities to champion change. As Malcom X once said “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today”. A new paradigm of learning is underway nurturing the next generation of sustainable stewards.

In Focus – Sustainable Schools

Green School, Bali & New Zealand

Established in 2006, Green School Bali is internationally famed for its bamboo architecture and unorthodox methods of learning. The structure of the campus instantly boosts its sustainability credentials as bamboo produces 30% more oxygen and absorbs more carbon than traditional trees. Sustained by alternative energy sources, it combines the electricity generated by hydro and solar panels to fulfil the power needs of the school.

Children walking around the The Green School campus
The Green School in Bali

Vending machines and fast food are out of the question as the organic sustenance for students is sourced from the neighbouring Kul Kul Farm. This is the school’s organic permaculture farm where children learn about biodynamic principles, closed environmental systems and the value of waste.

The educational philosophy focuses on the eight core principles of holistic health; emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical, environmental, financial, occupational and social.

In addition to core subjects, pupils are inducted into the world of social enterprise, innovation and mindfulness. In contrast to the UK, no exams take place from lower to middle school and instead attendees engage in project-based learning referred to as “Green Stone projects”. For example, in social enterprise, children are tasked with caring for the school chickens and subsequently selling the eggs at the local farmers market. Once they have started their own business and if they become profitable, they are able to apply for funds via the student finance team for a bank loan to expand.

Whilst UK schools have become increasingly reliant on technology, laptops and iPads are not used by lower levels of pupils at Green School. A sustainable world puts a spotlight on innovation to find solutions to future problems. The Innovation Hub at Green School is a key element that would do well to be translated to learning centres everywhere. This space captures the imagination of children where students reinvent material possibilities. From fuelling the school bus with recycled cooking oil to 3D printing of their plastic waste for stationary, reducing the school community’s environmental footprint is a top priority. Their recycling centre not only deals with waste separation but also has a devoted area to upcycling and sharing second hand items that can find another home.

Other integral features of the school are the yoga studio, designated mud wrestling arena and aqua gardening system. Green School has recently launched its second site in New Zealand, an exciting expansion for sustainable learning. You can learn more about Green School Bali here.

Brightworks, San Francisco

Based in California, Brightworks rip up the rule book through project based experiential learning. Brightworks argue the world needs more self-directed learning and see the world as a child’s classroom. From elementary through to high school, the emphasis is on a stress free, playful learning environment to stimulate creative and emotional intelligence. At the school, teachers are referred to as collaborators and students drive their own education. The Brightworks curriculum is referred to as ‘The Arc’ and is comprised of 3 main areas per academic year; exploration, expression, exposition. The exploration phase tackles questions and inquiries of a certain topic and defines the project scope. Expression builds on the student’s learnings and they apply this to design experiments, performance pieces and projects that are then presented to the school community in the final exposition stage. Through this process, pupils not only learn to be inquisitive but to project manage and create their own portfolio of work. This is valuable preparation for the future as these requirements are much akin to how we operate in the professional world!

Students at Brightworks
The Brightworks campus in California

Despite the fact that the student population of Brightworks are often the offspring of the tech population that inhabits the Bay Area, the school limits screen time and instead power tools found in the classroom wouldn’t be unusual. This rule drives focus on education without the distraction of and unnecessary reliance on technology. A key takeaway from the mission at Brightworks is “Why wait until you’re an adult to make a meaningful contribution to the world?”

Sing Ying, Hong Kong

In 2013, this secondary school was named by the Green Building Council as the Greenest School on Earth. Equipped with wind turbines, solar panels and green roofs, the campus focuses on energy efficiency.

A picture of Sing Ying school in Hong Kong
Sing Ying school was named the greenest school on earth

The Sing Ying School boasts sustainable accolades that speak for more than its embracing of renewable energy. This institution, an accessible low income-based school in Hong Kong, is raising a generation of planetary stewards through their programmes that hone in on environmental management and energy conservation.

Their objectives are to share the basic values of sustainable development and subsequent skills as well as practice environmental protection. A key focus for the student population of Sing Ying is how they can promote this amongst the general public to drive change. Their initiatives are wide ranging, from their Green School Awards, an environmental prefect team, food waste collection and low carbon cooking competitions, they are engaging their pupils across the sustainability spectrum. The environmental checklist provided in the school handbook instils the green principles of the school from the get go to shape behavioural changes and mindsets of what is expected. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see pupil’s end of term grades here in the UK account for their environmental stewardship too?

Uaso Nyiro Primary School, Kenya

Set in the central highlands of Kenya, Uaso Nyiro Primary School is helping to solve the endemic challenges of water scarcity for its local community. Designed by British architects and founders of the non-profit PITCHAfrica, Jane Harrison and David Turnbull, the Waterschool Building is an exemplary case of a sustainable school. Alongside the underground reservoir and four low tech classrooms that educate 350 pupils, the main feature of the school is its central room. This space has been purposed to harvest, store and filter over 350,000 litres of water annually for its pupils, teachers and wider community. Acting as a gathering place, the epicentre doubles as a hub for the local community to engage in training programmes. These look to share essential knowledge in animal conservation, reforestation, community agriculture and fuel conservation to enable the local population to prosper economically.

A building at the Uaso Nyiro school
Uaso Nyiro school in Kenya

As a result of the construction of the Uaso Nyiro Primary School, the availability of clean water and healthy food has freed children’s time so they can attend classes and enable their family to engage in income generating activities.

Lessons learnt from Uaso Nyiro is that a single school can provide limitless value to a wider community through its architectural prowess and environmental education.

Final Thoughts

We need creative and visionary thinkers to help us solve some of the world’s current and future challenges, be that surrounding fresh water, renewable energy or carbon sequestration. To nurture and develop this talent, we require a refreshed education system with institutions that are aligned to longer term thinking. Such a system demands an engaged teaching workforce committed to addressing the importance of creative and emotional intelligence as much as intellectual performance. International advisor on education, Ken Robertson laments that real education accounts for equal weighting amongst all disciplines, not just STEM subjects or traditional curriculums. Methods integrated into the world’s most sustainable schools illustrate how powerful environmental stewardship and project-based learning can lead to the change in mindset that is so desperately required.

As we continue throughout the climate decade, the degree to which we reform and reprioritise traditional learning through physical and digital mediums must tackle sustainability related challenges and stimulate innovation to improve the world.

If you found this article interesting, be sure to listen to AimHi’s discussion with leading environmental journalist, George Monbiot on if nature should be at the centre of teaching here.

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