School Improvement and Governance Network

Big Ideas

Environmental sustainability - discussion paper

This discussion paper is dedicated to the principals, teachers, parents and students together with members of community organisations working to create a sustainable future. Their knowledge and insights comprise the basis of the following good practice approach to education for sustainability.


"If I could take this section on environmental sustainability and implant it in our school today I would. ... Imagine if we had this model to strive for as our big picture" Primary school parent

This discussion looks at how best to embed environmental sustainability in schools. It also explores how education for sustainability improves learning.

Sustainability means finding solutions that improve quality of life without storing up problems for future generations. It is a ‘systems’ view. Integrating educational, environmental, social and economic issues, sustainability prompts thinking, working, living and learning in radically new ways. The old way is to try to understand and act on these kinds of issues separately in silos. The 'environment' also includes the natural, built and social environments. Issues such as clean water, soil and air, biodiversity, global warming, urban sprawl, public transport, green buildings, etc. cut across the natural, built and social.

Two key questions

Education for environmental sustainability involves both deep knowledge and understanding about, and personal and collective action for, creating sustainable schools, communities and societies. It has long had an action focus as much as an academic one, also challenging the divide between academic and vocational learning. Based on the practical experiences of educators and community members, two key questions need to be explored:

  1. How education has a pivotal role to play in preparing and empowering people to create a sustainable future
  2. How education for sustainability is, in turn, at the leading edge of real educational change and improvement, with the potential to transform learning experiences and outcomes.

This two-way benefit from learning how to solve environmental and other problems means that educational renewal and steps toward a sustainable future co-develop and reinforce each other.

Four ways to make a difference 

There are four key ways in which this is already happening. In tandem, they are the means for achieving real educational and environmental change in the years ahead. The four areas are:

  1. Shared decision making, i.e., the breadth of participation in educational leadership, governance and management is a means to achieve sustainability
  2. Powerful learning for all, i.e., how environmental education both depends on, and drives, innovation in teaching, learning technologies and curricula
  3. Partnerships for change including P-12 clusters of schools and strong school-family-community collaborations at the basis of shared goals for sustainability
  4. Resources and facilities, which includes how schools can become benchmarks for energy efficiency, renewable energy use and water management.

As a comprehensive and coherent framework for environmental education, this four-part framework can assist a school community and stakeholder organisations to:

  • Develop an integrated and whole-of-community approach to education for sustainability
  • Use education for sustainability to improve all aspects of students’ learning experiences.

Each of the four areas is discussed in what follows.

1. Shared decision making


Education for environmental sustainability encourages shared and distributed leadership and requires system leaders as well as eco-system leaders. System leaders include principals, teachers, parents, students and community members (and university and college educators) together with members of stakeholder organisations who:

  • Work with peers on a whole school strategy for sustainability or in a cluster of primary and secondary schools (P-12 schooling)
  • Help to build research-practice links and professional networks
  • Build partnerships with kindergartens and colleges/universities
  • Develop good practice in school-family-community partnerships
  • Lead partnerships to understand and protect ecosystems (e.g., schools involved in replanting areas and promoting biodiversity).

Learning to think, learn, work and lead in a systemic way is at the core of education for sustainability. ‘Things’ (e.g., classrooms, schools, people, plants, etc.) are obviously not sustainable separate from the larger systems in which they are nested.

One of the ways that schools teach systemic thinking and leadership is to model it themselves (such as a cluster of primary and secondary schools developing a P-12 learning system). This stands in stark contrast to an inward-looking model of leadership, focused largely on internal structures and roles. This leadership means unlocking the full potential of the ‘hidden leaders’ or non-traditional leaders in school communities. And it means developing the understanding that the more power and control we share, the more power we all have to use to improve all outcomes, including environmental outcomes.

School governance

Schools find that environmental education not only depends on, but progresses, strong, participatory governance and decision making. By its very nature, environmental sustainability is about school community members being involved in collective efforts.

Good governance means building the capacity of all stakeholders so that they can competently participate in shared decision making as enfranchised and informed decision makers. It occurs, for example, in a well-functioning eco-committee or environmental team that unites teachers, staff, parents, students and community members. Such a committee or team starts by obtaining information about:

  • School operations (e.g., waste, water, energy, grounds, gardens and the canteen)
  • School policies
  • Curriculum planning
  • Teaching and learning
  • Local community issues that can be addressed (such as biodiversity and habitat improvement).

It then looks at what policy and action plan need to be developed.

Shared vision and goals

Education for sustainability requires the development of a shared vision and goals. This has implications for strategic planning in schools and across clusters of schools. Schools may develop shared school-family-community goals such as environmental sustainability in their plans. Such goals can only be achieved, of course, through strong partnerships that involve not only schools and families working together but also community organisations.

The broader the scope of the plan, the more strategic it is. For example, a cluster of primary and secondary schools may plan to develop a unified P-12 approach to education for environmental sustainability. There are good examples where clusters of schools have begun to develop a coherent P-12 approach to sustainability.

Local self-management

As a whole-of-community commitment to broader educational and environmental goals gathers momentum, this also reinforces local self-management.

Environmental education depends on the right mix of centralised curricula and study materials and locally relevant learning experiences, strategies and programs. But it can be a challenge to achieve an optimum mix of top-down and bottom-up initiatives in environmental education. Validating and valuing the knowledge that schools and their communities have of their own issues is vitally important. When working well in a school, this means that:

  • Key stakeholders (teachers, parents and students) are involved at the outset in a strategic planning process (that includes analysis of environmental sustainability)
  • They jointly define the key issues and challenges and, as a partnership, develop the vision, values and goals (including the shared school-family-community goal of sustainability).

Nothing is going to matter more for the success of sustainability work than an optimum mix of system leaders, good governance and skilful management.

2. Powerful learning for all

Learning for sustainability can still be piecemeal and confined to extra-curricular activities rather than being an integral part of the curriculum across all learning areas. The most effective student learning for sustainability is built on ever-stronger links between three things:

  1. Teaching practice and pedagogical knowledge
  2. New information and communication technologies
  3. The depth and coherence of curriculum content.

The challenge is thus how best to integrate pedagogy, technology and content in powerful, synergistic ways. Environmental education provides practical solutions to this challenge. It does so in the following ways.

What is pedagogy?

Pedagogy is importantly about developing the very best teaching practice. But teaching as a practical act and pedagogy are not the same. Pedagogy in environmental education includes the practice of teaching as well as the:

  • Values
  • Visions of what education is for and how society may be (including an environmentally sustainable future)
  • Educational philosophies and theories
  • Research and evidence
  • Governance and policies
  • Models of education (e.g., P-12 schooling or clusters)
  • Curriculum content and frameworks
  • Information and communication technologies
  • Building designs and facilities
  • Cultural, social and community contexts
  • That inform, shape and explain the practice of teaching and, through this, significantly affect the nature of students' learning experiences and the outcomes achieved.

The bigger picture

Effective education for environmental sustainability is a mix of both high-quality practice in the classroom and community settings and this bigger picture of pedagogy, learning technologies and curriculum content. This mix develops through conversations among educators and community members about how best to:

  • Build close interaction between schools, teachers, students and the community
  • Engage parents and the wider community in learning outside the classroom
  • Develop school grounds and adjoining areas in ways that help students learn about nature and sustainable living through, for example, food growing and biodiversity conservation
  • Develop a unified, P-12 schooling approach to environmental education
  • Encourage students to explore questions, issues and problems of sustainability in contexts relevant to them and their families and communities
  • Combine deep conceptual learning and the active investigation of real problems
  • Develop a whole-of-school, cross-curriculum approach to education for sustainability so that sustainability is embedded in day-to-day learning
  • Ensure that the curriculum includes up-to-date, local learning materials, especially of a visual type
  • Create interdisciplinary subjects such as sustainable futures.

Moving beyond the old divides in education

Education for sustainability comprises both students’ independent inquiry, problem-solving and community-based action research and the depth of students’ knowledge and understanding of concepts, evidence, principles and theories enabled by educators. This is a blend of both strong ‘sage on the stage’ instruction and ‘guide by the side’ inquiry. It is not a rigid 'either-or'.

As educators know and develop in practice, it also means moving backwards and forwards between concepts, principles and theories, on the one side, and practical application, meaning and relevance, on the other. This 'best of both worlds' is in the interests of all students, but especially students in a mass secondary school system whose educational prospects may have been compromised, historically, by the pedagogical effects of false dichotomies in education.

A powerful concept-based curriculum

A conceptually organised curriculum for sustainability, grounded in practical case studies of local, national and global examples and students’ active participation in community problem solving, has many positive effects such as the following:

  • It develops the interplay of teacher-driven strong guided instruction and student capacity for independent inquiry
  • It helps to solve the problem of a cluttered, atomised curriculum
  • It supports students to grasp the nature of sustainability as a coherent conceptual system that crosses discipline boundaries
  • It is the glue for an integrated curriculum.

Among these all-important sustainability concepts are:

  • Biodiversity
  • Habitat
  • Carrying capacity
  • Interdependence
  • Sustainable development
  • Conservation
  • Ecological (including carbon) footprint
  • Ecosystems

As there is a mix of education about and for environmental sustainability and reflecting the cross-disciplinary breadth of sustainability education, related concepts include:

  • Participation
  • Social justice
  • Human rights
  • Citizenship
  • Democracy
  • Decision making
  • Power
  • Cultural diversity

Teachers' and students' concept maps (as visual representations that show the relationships among key concepts) can help to organise and develop the depth of knowledge about sustainability.

P-12 curriculum coherence

Articulation between all P-12 levels about content, concepts, case studies and community problem solving in environmental education will become critical to significantly improving outcomes for all students and reducing the achievement gap. In a coherent, concept-based, P-12 curriculum, key concepts can spiral through the year levels. This can help all students to navigate the educational journey and to probe concepts in sufficient depth to become sustainability literate and active.

With more staff working in P-12 teams across clusters of primary and secondary schools and sharing their expertise, all teachers can build the coherence of the curriculum. Educators use concept mapping tools to develop this curriculum coherence.

The curriculum becomes a continuous learning program, showing the links between key sustainability understandings at each level. A brief version of this information can also be presented visually and printed for parents and students.

3. Partnerships for change

The best results in environmental education are achieved when teachers, students, parents and the whole community collaborate on developing and implementing a strategy. Real teams and partnerships consist of individuals - and organisations - with different yet complementary knowledge or skills. They create something together that could not have been developed by any one person or organisation.

Real teams also bring together teachers', parents' and students' knowledge and insights, which is the main way to add value. The idea of complementarity in real teams and partnerships will become a core idea in education for environmental sustainability. It refers to:

  • How an educator or school with an academic focus can complement the work of another with an applied learning focus. Students ultimately benefit from the mix
  • How real-world and abstract learning tasks complement each other and are part of what Professor David Clarke calls “an integrative theory of classroom practice and learning”
  • How primary and secondary school teachers complement each other by sharing their expertise and developing a unified P-12 approach to schooling (the best sustainability work can happen via clusters of primary and secondary schools)
  • How the knowledge and insights of parents can complement those of teachers, and vice versa, and how the limitations of one may be matched by the strengths and insights of the other
  • How sustainability actions in schools can complement the initiatives of families and community groups and organisations (with shared school-family-community goals in school strategic plans being a basis for these partnerships).

These complementarities obviously require system thinking and system action from educational leaders.

The next big thing

Building on the use of throughlines, a continuum of learning for sustainability from kindergarten through to university and college, or a K-20 system of education, is the next big thing. Based on the research and good practice of educators, K-20 education is at least one secondary school, a primary school, if not several feeder primary schools, and a university/college along with a kindergarten working together for sustainability. A K-20 partnership may obviously begin with any combination of these.

What matters is that the partners not only ‘work together’ but begin to establish shared goals for environmental sustainability and use their resources to achieve them.

School-family-community partnerships

Many initiatives have been broad partnerships between schools, students and their families and communities. As an example of this yet-to-be realised potential for a new generation of school-family-community partnerships, the Sustainables Challenge includes the following ten rules for sustainable living:

  1. Take a four minute power shower
  2. Turn off lights and appliances at the switch when not in use
  3. Buy renewable energy, by signing up to Green Power with your electricity provider
  4. Buy the most energy and water efficient appliances you can afford
  5. Take re-usable bags with you when you go shopping
  6. Put your food or plant scraps in the compost or a worm farm
  7. Look for products without unnecessary packaging
  8. Walk, cycle or use public transport when you can - and leave the car at home
  9. Grow plants native to your area in your garden
  10. Go chemical free when you clean.

Where students’ families and the local community are part of the strategy, this can have major effects. It can close the old divide between what Stern terms ‘private sphere’ and ‘public sphere’ actions. ‘Private sphere’ actions include switching off unnecessary lights, recycling, green purchasing, etc. They can be a focus of sustainability education in many schools. But obviously the effects of these ‘private’ actions may be limited unless combined with community-based ‘public’ strategies.

Depending on the age and stage of particular students, actions in the private and public arenas can, of course, complement each other. In so doing, they propel a new generation of partnerships.

Action in the community

The aim of such partnerships is to build the capacity of community members to work together towards more sustainable practices. To begin with, schools can make an inventory of the biodiversity that already exists within the school and local environments. They may also develop broader goals around sustainability and set targets such as replacing parts of a school's lawned areas with a natural understorey of local shrubs and grasses.

A school or cluster of schools may increasingly work with the local council and stakeholders such as the La Trobe Wildlife Sanctuary to monitor, safeguard and restore the biodiversity in the area.

4. Resources and facilities

School buildings obviously have a large environmental impact, from the materials used in construction to the resources used to operate them. They are also vulnerable to the impact of climate change. The CSIRO predicts that temperatures in Victoria are likely to rise by between 0.5 and 1.50C by 2030, and that by 2070 the temperature could increase by as much as 50C compared to 1990 levels.

In addition to temperature increases, the CSIRO also predicts more intense rainfall events, stronger winds and increased fire weather. These conditions pose a significant threat to educational infrastructure. While there is a limit to which inefficient facilities can be improved by good operational practices, new public schools are increasingly planned and constructed with environmental sustainability as a core requirement.

Over time, schools can become models of energy efficiency, renewable energy use and water management. They can take the lead in their communities by showcasing wind, solar and bio-fuel energy, low-energy equipment, freshwater conservation, use of rainwater and other measures.

ResourceSmart Schools

ResourceSmart Schools links the many sustainability programs available to Victorian schools. Currently 25 per cent of Victorian schools are participating in this program. ResourceSmart Schools brings together sustainability educators and delivery organisations to help schools to:

  • Minimise waste
  • Save energy and water
  • Promote biodiversity
  • Cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

ResourceSmart Schools is managed by Sustainability Victoria. Sustainability Victoria is helping to deliver key components of the Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative (AuSSI Vic) framework to help Victorian schools embed sustainability into their school.

AuSSI encourages schools to improve the management of resources, including water, energy, waste, biodiversity and purchased products and materials. Schools in AuSSI Vic can aim for five star AuSSi accreditation by completing five modules.


Ours is a time of both opportunity and crisis. The opportunity comes from the necessity to rethink and transform education systems and schools. This process has already revealed the extent to which educational renewal and steps toward a sustainable future are really two sides of the same coin.

The crisis arises from the fact that the education revolution is in its infancy and yet to be adequately resourced to fully support environmental education and a transition to a sustainable future.

Bird-friendly gardens


Many schools have led the way with developing biodiversity gardens and deep environmental learning for all students. This work has also promoted shared school, family and community work in halting the decline in biodiversity.

This reflects the awareness of the powerful role that local communities (along with schools and families) can play in developing ‘flora for fauna’ ecosystems and biodiversity gardens.

Schools work with each other and with community agencies such as the La Trobe University Wildlife Sanctuary to develop initiatives in order to increase biodiversity.

Students research plants and learn how to grow them. They also learn about which particular types of native plants and gardens attract and protect specific kinds of native birds, butterflies, frogs and lizards. The learning can be powerful and profound.

Flora for fauna gardens

Flora for fauna gardens are a joy to the students who create them as well as a life-saver to the fauna that find sanctuary there.

These gardens in school grounds, the homes of students and community settings use native plants to attract (and create a nesting environment for) the widest possible range of native birds, including honeyeaters, robins, wrens and fantails. This is obviously a major challenge in many environs as ecologically inappropriate, non-native plants have destroyed the habitat for hundreds of species of butterflies, birds, lizards, etc.

Schools develop their own biodiversity garden checklists for school grounds. Students also use these checklists for private and public gardens. Key criteria include:

  • Different types of native plants of different heights
  • A range of native trees over four metres tall
  • Low-growing plants including plants with nectar for butterflies
  • A highly visible, safe place for birds to drink and bathe such as a pond or bird bath
  • Sunny spots with a rock surface for lizards and butterflies.

The challenges

Such work can become a shared school-family-community goal in a school’s strategic plan, magnifying the impact. Community partners can include local councils and universities. For example, in working with the La Trobe Wildlife Sanctuary, students become familiar with the contrast between:

  • The 175 species of birds that have been identified over time in the Sanctuary
  • The reality that few of the birds to be found in the Sanctuary can be routinely seen in suburban streets and gardens. For example, small native birds such as finches and wrens are becoming less common, replaced by dominant and aggressive species such as the Common Myna and Noisy Miner.

There are many reasons for this decline. In Victoria, the impact of prolonged drought is, of course, a factor. As well, rather than structurally diverse gardens needed for a diverse bird community, areas can lack a variety of plants. Relatively bare areas support fewer birds and an alarmingly low diversity of species. As well, many exotic trees do not provide an adequate food source for a wide range of native birds.

For example, insectivorous birds (which are most disadvantaged in many areas) such as the Superb Fairy-Wren are not able to locate sufficient food in many exotic trees (as insect availability tends to be lower in non-native trees).

What can be done?

When a variety of native plants are planted in private gardens, schools and along a streetscape (rather than a single species of tree planted in a row adjacent to a footpath) there is an increase in:

  • Structural diversity - ground covers and grasses for birds to forage on, shrubs of varying heights (many smaller birds need dense plantings of shrubs for food, shelter and nest locations) and a mix of trees for perching, look out sites, roosting and food
  • Food sources for many native birds, including nectar-feeders and insectivores. This increases bio-diversity and prevents any one bird such as the Noisy Miner becoming dominant.

Students learn how Banksias, for example, are food sources for birds such as Honeyeaters, some parrots, Noisy Miners and Red Wattlebirds. They are more supportive of larger nectarivores (nectar feeders). Too many Banksias will thus reduce biodiversity.

A broad and balanced biodiversity strategy in school grounds, a streetscape and private gardens promotes a mix of plants that attracts nectarivores along with granivores (seed eaters) such as parrots, rosellas and finches and insectivores such as the Superb Fairy-Wren, Robins and Willie Wagtails. In this way, communities are able to be proactive in making a major difference - in building balanced ecosystems (that greatly increase biodiversity and the range of bird species).

Eco-schools and eco-streets

Schools can thus become eco-schools and streets can become eco-streets which may include

  • Plants for a range of birds
  • Water tanks
  • Vegetable gardens
  • Solar panels - both for hot water and electricity generation
  • Community gardens

Baseline data can be established so that ‘before’ and ‘after’ comparisons can be made and to assess the success of the work. Students can be involved in these bird surveys. Publications such as the Best Practice Guidelines for Enhancing Urban Bird Habitat: Scientific Report are also used by schools in their biodiversity work. As well, the work of researchers such as Professor Michael Clarke at La Trobe University helps students to understand why birds such as Noisy Miners are a problem.

Schools also do things such as clearing and revegetating areas that are overrun with weeds. They recognise that the task is often too big to tackle alone and thus raise community awareness about the issue. Parents can also be involved. After carrying out a biodiversity study, students may survey community attitudes and produce a brochure promoting solutions to the problems such as a lack of biodiversity.

Local councils often respond by conducting a comprehensive assessment of the problems and the work required.



The following links and documents can assist school communities, educators, students, families and community organisations to:

  • Develop an integrated and whole-of-community approach to education for sustainability
  • Use education for sustainability to improve all aspects of students’ learning experiences
  • Promote biodiversity and develop 'flora for fauna' habitat for native birds and other species.

Community gardens

Cultivating Community is a not-for-profit organisation that promotes and supports the development of community garden projects.

Ecological restoration

Practical Ecology offers expertise in ecological restoration, flora and fauna assessments, environmental planning and site preparation and planting.

Flora for fauna

The Best Practice Guidelines for Enhancing Urban Bird Habitat includes research and practical guidelines for environmental officers, landscape architects, schools and homeowners.

Gardens and nurseries

The Australian Garden in Cranbourne features 100,000 plants in 15 different landscape displays and exhibition gardens. The Garden's Education Service has also developed curriculum based programs for students from pre school to tertiary levels.

The Kuranga Native Nursery in Mount Evelyn is a retail nursery specialising in Australian native flora. Widely regarded as one of Australia’s foremost native nurseries.

The Melbourne Wildlife Sanctuary Plant Nursery specialises in plants indigenous to the Lower Yarra Valley. Over 250 species of indigenous plants are available from the nursery.

The Victorian Indigenous Nurseries Co-operative in Fairfield propagates and supplys local native plants to schools, local government and government agencies and community members.


Former US Vice President Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, includes an educational guide.

The Australian Native Plants Society promotes awareness of the beauty and diversity of our flora and encourages the growing of native plants in home gardens, public places and for revegetation.

The Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative (AuSSI) is a partnership of the federal and state governments that supports schools and their communities to develop a whole-system and whole-school approach to sustainability. The AuSSI website includes case studies and resources.

The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has a range of environmental sustainability policies and programs. This includes an environmental sustainability strategy and tools and resources for schools. 

The Gould League conducts environmental education and sustainability programs for schools and the community.

The Institute for Sustainable Solutions at the University of Sydney covers research in the fields of energy, health, development and the environment.

See Parks Victoria in relation to how schools can get involved by forming a partnership with a local park with students working on a range of hands-on projects such as tree planting, weed removal and wildlife conservation projects.

ResourceSmart Schools links the many sustainability programs available to Victorian schools. It brings together sustainability educators and delivery organisations to help schools to:

  • Minimise waste
  • Save energy and water
  • Promote biodiversity
  • Cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

The Melbourne Wildlife Sanctuary provides an indigenous natural environment for conservation, education and research activities. It is developing:

  • A 28 hectare open range sanctuary for indigenous species of fauna which existed in the area before European settlement
  • An Education Resource and Visitor's Centre comprising tutorial rooms, laboratories, environment displays and library areas.

Sustainability Victoria helps communities, businesses and governments to actively make a difference by converting policies into practical programs with a measurable impact on sustainability.

The Climate Project (TCP) was founded by Al Gore with a mission to increase public awareness of the climate crisis at a grassroots level world-wide.

The Victorian Association for Environmental Education provides a forum for educators and fosters debate about, and helps to develop, the most effective ways for education for sustainability.

School initiatives

The Gresswell Cluster is an example of a cluster of schools focused on environmental citizenship. The now-disbanded Gresswell Cluster is a model of how primary and secondary schools can work together in a collaborative P-12 way.

Tourism and camps

McLeod Eco Farm on French Island offers a unique organic farm-stay experience.