Changing minds

Outdoor learningAmy was 15 years old when she took part in a pilot project at the Eden Project. She had never been that interested or engaged in the issues surrounding sustainability and climate change- mainly, she says, due to a lack of knowledge: “I didn’t really know what was going on so you can’t have an opinion on it.”

So when she had the opportunity to engage in the pilot she wasn’t sure about whether it would be that relevant for her but decided to give it a go: “I thought that it might help me understand and to show what people are doing and what I can do to help.”

After completing the Green Talent workshop Amy and her group went to see how Rolls Royce were approaching sustainability and looking at how business opportunities, customer pressure and impending carbon reduction targets were driving the agenda forward. She got the opportunity to see large scale engineering in action and also to meet people involved in the work. The whole experience had a profound affect on her. “You’ve explained it in different ways, which makes it a lot easier to actually get. It’s like changed the whole way that I think…because now I know I can do something.”

Transformational projects

It’s this kind of transformation that we are aiming for when we work with young people in all of our education projects. This is a pretty big challenge but we believe that’s absolutely what is required as the 21st century will present enormous challenges to our society: food security, energy security, population growth and movement, all cranked up by climate change.

The 2008 Climate Change Act commits us to an 80 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – and if that feels like a long way away then remember that it is within the working lifetime of anyone you know in their 20s. The UK is unique in being the only country around the world that has introduced a long-term legally binding framework to tackle the dangers of climate change and this 80 per cent cut will force transformative changes in society. Almost every aspect of our lives today depends on liberal use of cheap fossil energy and we can’t even begin to imagine how the changes ahead will play out. All we can say with certainty is that it’s going to be a wild ride!

The role of the young
Preparing young people for the challenges of the future needs to be a vital element in any education programme – not just in relation to sustainability. This isn’t about niche environmentalism, it’s much more fundamental than that. Many governments, international agencies and major corporations, such as O2 and Rolls Royce are developing plans for action at national levels and the frameworks that are being laid down are a platform for a radical change in our society.

The education, skills and learning sectors must adapt and refocus to the major economic, ecosystem and social challenges of this century and demonstrate to young people the links between their skills and talents, their future jobs and careers, and the environmental challenges of the 21st century.

How to approach these issues with young people? Over ten years work with schools, colleges and the general public we have developed a set of approaches that inform our teaching and learning about sustainability.

Our starting point is dependency – on the natural world, and on each other. This connection is fundamental; a generation that does not understand or value the natural world will not strive to protect it. A generation that does not value society will not work together to save it.

That’s why at Eden we sow, grow and exhibit plants for food, fuel, medicine, materials, beauty, music, sport, entertainment, and more to show our dependence on the green things of life. And it’s not just goods, but services too. Our diverse ecosystems, forests, oceans, steppe and savannah, act as air conditioners, water purifiers, waste recyclers, carbon capturers and climate controllers. These are called ecosystem services – similar to the services we have in our homes except they’re free and vital for our survival.

We’ve all heard the stories about children who are horrified that carrots grow under the ground in “dirty” soil and are astonished to learn that cows give us milk. Learning outdoors and school gardening are brilliant starting points for developing this fundamental understanding of our dependence on the natural world. Trythall School, a small primary in the far west of Cornwall have spent the last term fully embracing the possibilities of learning outdoors from developing children’s firelighting skills and making and cooking bread on the fires, to more traditional nature study such as bug hunting and pond dipping, to involving the children in the development of their own school grounds by building willow structures and problem solving outside issues like rabbits.

We also depend on each other. The solutions to challenges like climate change are not going to be found solely by personal effort and individual action. How we respond as organisations and communities is going to be key. In school, this means that working on sustainability offers a chance to focus on teamwork and collaboration as well as meaningful contexts to work on community cohesion, inclusion and diversity.

Positive and optimistic

People don’t change out of fear, guilt and resentment – but for years this seems to have been the key approach of much environmental and sustainability education. This approach works from an assumption that there is a set of right sustainability behaviour that we just need people to adopt, and everything will be fine. But the changes required are so big, and the situation so dynamic that the question is not so much how we can get people to change their behaviour, as how we can get the best from the unavoidable change that is happening all around us. Reducing our carbon emissions by 80 per cent isn’t going to mean we just do or have 80 per cent less stuff – we need to focus on doing things differently, or doing different things.

It’s worth reminding young people, and ourselves, just how quickly change can happen – and that change is by no means always a negative thing. It’s something that’s really hard for young people to spot – their memories aren’t long enough yet. But just take at the smartphone in your pocket if you need a reminder about how fast the world can change. That was the IT revolution – this generation will be living through the climate revolution.

And in the face of that time of radical change, we will need creativity and optimism to get us through. It’s almost as if we have to choose to be hopeful – perhaps by being cynical about the cynics who say nothing can be done and remembering how many amazing good things that happened in the last few decades, and how few of them anyone predicted.

Keeping it real

Practical experience, real examples and authentic voices are key in bringing sustainability alive and making it meaningful and relevant to children and young people. From eating a tomato that they’ve grown themselves, to seeing Eden’s industrial composter in action, to hearing from a large corporation like Rolls Royce what sustainability means to them; whatever the scale, our experience demonstrates the value of showing that sustainability is more than just a theoretical concept.

Andy Latham, sustainability coordinator and science teacher at Penryn College, Cornwall, knows how important this can be. “A key part of a students’ learning at Penryn College is being able to see the theory they learn in lessons being put into practice,” he says. “Teaching aspects of renewable energy took on a whole new meaning for students when I showed them a local solar water heating system in action. They became so engaged and inspired by seeing these ideas they came back to the classroom and built their own.”

Next steps

At this time of uncertainty and reduced resources it might seem a bit challenging to explore ways of developing education delivery that might cost more money or might be a break from the norm. However, we believe that we don’t have to just passively sleepwalk into these changes. Continuing business as normal just won’t be possible in the coming years and it will require the best of us to build the world that we want for this and coming generations.

By scanning the horizon and inspiring and motivating young people with educational programmes and experiences that contextualise the imperative for change and also increase their confidence in being able to be part of a practical solution, we have a real opportunity to rise to the challenges that the 21st century will throw at us.

For more information
Information on all of Eden’s programmes for schools can be found at

If you need help justifying this work, or want ideas for starting points, the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom campaign has done a brilliant job addressing the issues that stop schools taking learning outdoors contains real case studies of young people who have already found or created jobs to do with climate change and sustainability. is an online community where young people can get career advice, learn new ways of working and share ideas about the future.