Cooperation and a practical approach are keys to learning environmental sustainability
Today, sustainable development is on everyone's lips, and for a good reason. Climate change and the loss of biodiversity are huge challenges faced by humanity. Solving them requires cooperation at different levels, from local to international. Environmental responsibility has also been defined as one of the priorities of the Erasmus+ programme and should be part of all project activities.
In early 2022, the Commission published a report discussing Erasmus+ projects implemented between 2014 and 2020 that focused on education for environmental sustainability. Fifteen out of the 120 projects considered to be good practice projects were selected for a closer examination in the report. The purpose of the report was to identify and showcase proven approaches to developing education for environmental sustainability.
What inspires many to join an Erasmus+ project is the project idea and a desire to implement environmentally friendlier values in their own close circles. How then should you begin to start implementing projects that develop education for environmental sustainability? How do you turn an idea into a successful Erasmus+ project?
Sustainable development as part of everyday life of schools
Two of the 15 projects presented in the report were coordinated by a Finnish educational institution. The Healthy food choices for a sustainable future project implemented by the Joint Authority of Education in the Espoo region Omnia between 2016 and 2018 is a perfect example of how a project has managed to combine sustainable development, an entrepreneurial mindset and digital learning tools. Students of hotel, restaurant and catering services from a total of five vocational institutions in Finland, Croatia and Italy participated in the project. The aim was to find ways of reducing the carbon footprint of the served foods by making them more sustainable.
A variety of digital learning materials and social media were used in the project to enhance learning. In addition to different pop-up events, study trips and competitions, the project implemented two e-books containing environmentally friendly recipes, developed digital learning badges (Open badges) on sustainable development and supported sustainable entrepreneurship, among other things.
The ECORoad project (2016–2018) coordinated by the Hönttämäki School from Oulu was also highlighted in the Commission’s report. The project was aimed at guiding the life of schoolchildren and local communities in a more sustainable direction and integrating the mindset of sustainable development into the school culture and teaching. Project meetings were organised together with the partner schools to discuss the school culture from different points of view. In the meetings, good practices and the lessons learnt were shared, a workplan was drawn up and the strengths and development areas of the schools were reflected on. ECORoad also organised four training sessions on the different dimensions of sustainable development to teachers. A guidebook based on the project was compiled in cooperation to meet the needs of sustainability education.
The project had a profound impact on the activities and curricula of the schools. It also affected the attitude of the pupils and their families, teachers, the school’s management and the wider community towards sustainable development.
Keys to a successful sustainable development project
The report produced by the Commission highlighted three key factors that contribute to succeeding: practical approaches, engaging the entire school and a long-term perspective.
Almost all of the successful projects developed practical approaches that produced concrete results. The pupils often had direct contact with the environment and thus had an opportunity to learn different skills through the experience. Collecting waste, planting trees and organising different environmental campaigns were often found meaningful.
A key success factor was engaging the entire school in the project. Support from the school's management, help from teachers and parents, and pupils’ commitment to the topic contributed to the success of the projects. The meaningfulness of the topics was discussed with the pupils on a daily basis so that pupils and teachers would start to use new practices and adopt the lessons learnt from the project. Sometimes an individual may feel the need to take action, but needs a sense of community and integration into a group to do so.
In successful projects, the long-term impacts were kept in mind instead of emphasising only the short-term benefits. The definition of sustainable development in itself implies that it must be assessed in the long term: today’s decisions must secure good preconditions for life also for future generations. Providing a long-term perspective keeps the key message of the project in the participants’ minds for a long time after the project has ended. It is also advisable to remember that the changes in sustainable development are often slow – changing one’s own practices and everyday routines in a more environmentally friendly direction does not necessarily take place overnight.
Tips for an environmentally friendly project
- Finding the right partners is the key to a successful Erasmus+ project. You can use the online forums and seminars in the Erasmus+ programme to look for project partners.
- Find out what the topical environmental challenges in the local community are. This will help you find topics that are likely to motivate people to participate in the project.
- Plan a project that will make learning inspiring. Pupils should be able to have direct contact with the environment through hands-on approaches.
- Use interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches. This enables you to highlight the extent of environmental issues and their impacts on the different areas of society.
- Do not hesitate to bring together different groups and people. This will allow people with different opinions to meet and exchange views on learning about environmental sustainability.
- Respect the school culture, curriculum and traditions of each partner. Ensure that the project is flexible enough to adapt to the differences between the partner countries.
- Use positive communication to inspire and motivate the participants. The project should also have a clear message that you will be taking forward!
- Even small changes are significant. Every project does not need to be revolutionary – the project can also achieve minor changes in the operating culture of one's own organisation or in the local community.
- Just do it! Every project is important and every topic significant.