Global futures, sustainability and education

Iveta Silova, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College/ASU
November 29, 2023

Education’s role in global sustainability has typically focused on the science behind the solutions. Trained engineers, scientists, biologists and tech entrepreneurs, for example, are pursuing research and developing product-based solutions aimed at addressing social, economic and environmental challenges. 

Increasingly, education systems and organizations are preparing current and future generations, starting at the K–12 level, for managing a world with limited global resources. At Arizona State University, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory and other interdisciplinary units, including ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, are taking on these challenges. 

MLFTC is increasing its global sustainability academic offerings and deepening collaborations among networks of sustainability-focused educators and researchers. Faculty are contributing to K–12 and higher education initiatives and expanding research in global sustainability education. 

Iveta Silova, professor and associate dean of global engagement, shares insight into the role of education in addressing sustainability challenges. Silova is doing research through the end of 2023 as a Fulbright Scholar at Tampere University in Finland.

How can educators address global sustainability?
Education and sustainability are inextricably linked, and this is reflected not only in academic literature but also in global policy such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The common assumption is that increasing access to quality education will inevitably lead to stronger environmental awareness and greater techno-scientific innovations necessary to address sustainability challenges. 

However,  scientific knowledge and technical solutions alone are not sufficient for addressing sustainability challenges. Nor do they automatically translate into behavior change, mindset shifts or climate action. What we see is a major disconnect between the growing knowledge about climate change and the failure of global and local social norms, economic systems and political institutions to respond boldly or quickly enough. 

This is where education can play a key role in addressing global sustainability challenges. At the policy level, this means reformulating education policy frameworks to prioritize planetary well-being and ecological (not only social) justice over the current focus on economic growth, competition and development. At a practical level, this entails mainstreaming sustainability, environmental and climate education in school and university curricula. It means educational practice and professional development of educators in order to ensure that learners of all ages  —  and at all levels  — have the knowledge, skills and sense of agency needed to cope with the consequences of the climate crisis, while learning to live and act more sustainably in the future. 

What are you learning about global sustainability education from your perspective as a Fulbright Scholar in Finland?

Unlike the United States, where climate education is only starting to become part of the school curricula in some states (in 2020, New Jersey became the first state to incorporate K–12 climate change education across content areas), teaching about climate change is already a part of the Finnish education system. Environmental and climate education is included in the national core curriculum for basic education across subjects. In addition to the core curriculum, there are also a number of environmental education initiatives and organizations in Finland, which support youth groups and educators with professional development programs, materials and research. I have really enjoyed learning about the experiences of Finnish colleagues in this area, including forest schools, outdoor education, multispecies pedagogies and other initiatives that recognize human lives as inextricably interconnected with those of all other beings, elements and forces on earth.

How can collaborative networks support sustainability education?

Many individuals, organizations and higher education institutions are addressing global sustainability and climate change, and I want to recognize the many contributions being made by these groups nationally and globally. Here at ASU, in alignment with MLFTC’s mission to create knowledge and mobilize people, we are developing collaborative networks across geographic, cultural and disciplinary boundaries to facilitate knowledge exchange and innovation to advance climate and sustainability education. 

One example of that is in our work addressing the National Science Foundation’s call for the development of international networks to address “scientific grand challenges” that are aligned with the NSF Big Ideas initiative. We have just launched the AccelNet-Design: Global Futures Oriented Research Collective on Education for Sustainability, a project that I am leading in collaboration with MLFTC co-principal investigators Professor Gustavo Fischman and Associate Professor Andrea Weinberg. This project aims to build a network-of-networks around climate, sustainability and environmental education to amplify synergies across disciplinary and geopolitical borders as we mobilize the power of education to address the global sustainability crisis.

In addition, our faculty, students and staff have established a Learning Futures Collaborative Education, Sustainability and Global Futures to mobilize forces across disciplines and programs in order to put climate education on the policy agenda, while simultaneously beginning to reimagine and reconfigure education toward the future survival of the planet and people. We are working closely with Imagination and Futures Thinking at LFC, which is developing an interdisciplinary research program around futures thinking and foresight in K-12 education. Finally, in conjunction with all our work, we engage in continuous and provocative global conversations about what kind of education is necessary for more sustainable and ecologically just futures. 

How else is your work intersecting with other initiatives as ASU?

ASU has united world-renowned scientists, scholars and innovators as part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, which is aimed at helping to create a habitable future for all humankind. MLFTC faculty and staff are taking the lead on some education-focused Global Futures Laboratory projects.  

Our certificate program in Environmental Education, led by Professor Mo Walters, continues to grow. Most courses are offered both online and on-campus, attracting students across disciplines to study environmental education and develop the environmental literacy that fosters community leadership strategies and provides opportunities to practice environmental education pedagogies. We are also developing new programs to meet the needs of school systems and community groups.

How is MLFTC expanding sustainability education in the Phoenix area? 

In collaboration with our university-wide colleagues, MLFTC faculty have been involved in establishing the Regional Center of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development serving the Phoenix area. It is part of the global RCE network recognized by UNESCO and the United Nations University’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability. 

MLFTC and the Global Futures Laboratory, in collaboration with ASU’s Knowledge Exchange for Resilience, have been actively involved in establishing the center and strengthening the links with the community. We have done that in conjunction with a wide range of community groups including research labs, government, businesses, civil society organizations and educational organizations. 

The center formally launched in January 2023. Though it is based at ASU, it involves the participation of a growing number of local school districts, municipalities, nonprofit groups and national organizations. 

How can K12 educators address global sustainability?

At ASU and MLFTC we recognize the role of educators in preparing current and future generations to address some of our society’s most critical issues, and global sustainability is one of the most critical issues our current and future generations face. One of the significant developments this year with the Regional Center of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development is a project funded through a grant from the Underwriters Laboratory Research Institutes. It supports the development of a cohort of teacher fellows who are preparing to expand sustainability education throughout the Greater Phoenix area.  

Ensuring that younger generations at the K–12 level learn ecological literacy, as well as strong critical thinking skills and the ability to leverage technology responsibly, is an obligation and an opportunity for those of us who support the work of educators and learning-focused organizations. At ASU, this process of inquiry aligns with a framework we call Principled Innovation®, which was originally developed at MLFTC and is now ASU’s newest design aspiration. The decisions and actions taken today affect how our society develops in the future, and that is why we must leverage education and collective networks as our society confronts the climate crisis and ensures more sustainable futures.

Learn more about recent sustainability education research by MLFTC faculty: