Education to Create a Sustainable Future | Smithsonian Voices

Students at St. Patrick’s College in Montevideo, Uruguay, are collaborating to imagine an ideal sustainable community using the Smithsonian’s Guide to Global Goals, Sustainable Communities, with partner in field testing XSTEM.
St. Patrick’s College

Our common goal

People say start over. Educators take this to heart by using techniques such as a list of basic understandings and learning objectives to focus on the desired end of a class or block. But take a step back and you start asking, what do we want for learning in general? My answer: Education for a sustainable future is the goal of helping everyone learn to create a better future for themselves and for all of us.

Defining and creating a sustainable future is not the work of one person, it requires the cooperation of people around the world. Just as sustainable solutions balance social, economic, environmental and ethical perspectives, education for a sustainable future also balances these diverse needs. Of course, education fills an economic need by teaching young people the skills needed to survive and succeed in a fast-growing economy. It can also meet important social needs by providing a forum for people to learn to communicate, build consensus and collaborate to achieve common goals. Importantly, it can help meet environmental needs to teach respect and protection for our common home, planet Earth. And whenever we want to create a better future, we must help young people see ethics in everything, think: what is right, what is right and what future do we want?

Survey of the area

Knowing where you want to go is one thing, knowing how to get there is quite another. What are the main attributes young people will need in the future and how to develop them? As a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution in 2018, I took on the task of trying to answer these questions as part of the Smithsonian Science for Global Goals project. A few things quickly became clear when I worked with the Smithsonian Science and Education Center (SSEC) team:

  • Active, not passive: The future is uncertain and could be changed by the choices we make. Creating a common sustainable future is not a passive set of steps. It is an act of collective innovation. So, instead of metaphorically learning their alphabet, young people need to create a whole new alphabet. This means that they need to be given the opportunity to explore the world around them, make decisions and act according to their ideas. Actions, reflections, iterations and actions again enable young people to develop skills and confidence, which encourages them to take an active role in creating change in their local and global communities.
  • “Yes, and …”, not “either /”: There are many disciplines, pedagogies and people that need to be involved in creating a sustainable future. Instead of choosing one set of ideas and ignoring all the others, the most likely way to find sustainable solutions is to combine diverse ideas and perspectives. Areas of thought such as inquiry-based science, civic education, youth research, field-based education, global citizenship and many more allow for the use of many innovative approaches. Their sharing provides a complete set of tools for educators and young people facing the challenge of global challenges.
  • Global goals: A sustainable future includes everyone on the planet. Education for this purpose should include as many people as possible, regardless of location, culture, ability or identity. Young people need to feel a sense of global belonging and learn to focus on collaboration rather than on competition with local and global peers. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are an excellent foundation that helps young people explore various aspects of a sustainable future.

Map of the learning path

Specific skills and attitudes encourage young people to take an active approach to solving the problems they identify in the world around them. One of the results of my research has been the creation of sustainable development thinking, a tool for expressing these key ways of thinking and acting. Four thinking: empowerment and agency, openness and reflection, justice and fairness, and a global-local relationship. Together, these sentiments help us remember our goal of developing the skills and attitudes needed to participate positively in building our common future.

Four interconnected circles representing sustainable thinking, empowerment and agency, openness and reflection, justice and fairness, global and local interconnectedness

This drawing demonstrates how sustainable development thinking can be used as a tool to formulate the key skills and attitudes needed for youth to help create a sustainable future.

Smithsonian Research and Education Center

Bearing in mind these sustainable development thinking and combining educational research and frameworks from different fields of thinking, I have led an effort to map the path to education for a sustainable future. This map, “Progress of Global Goals,” shows the process that young people can follow to become active contributors in creating a sustainable future.


This is an illustration of the progress of action on global goals, which shows the process that young people can follow to achieve sustainable action.

Smithsonian Research and Education Center

Young people start with what they already know: how they learn best, their cultural context and knowledge. Recognizing the individuality and resources that young people bring to learning, they enter the learning process from a position of strength and respect. They are then systematically directed to a place where they can take self-determined, reasoned action.

First, they question and explore their local and global communities. They make sense of what they learn using critical reasoning and systems understanding. They then synthesize their ideas to propose solutions and reach consensus. Finally, young people act by implementing their ideas and reflecting on their actions. More information on this process and how it can help young people contribute to a sustainable future can be found in my recently published book, From Ideas to Action: Transforming Learning to Inspire Action on Critical Global Issues. .

The cover of the book shows a globe in the background with the words “From ideas” on the globe and then “to action” on the big green arrow.  Below are the words “Transforming Learning to Inspire Action on Critical Global Issues” and the author’s name, Heidi Gibson

Cover of Heidi Gibson’s book “From Ideas to Action, Transforming Learning to Inspire Action on Critical Global Issues”.

Cover design by Claire Purnell. The background image of the globe is provided by Nikita Kulchitsky / Dreamstime

Progress on global goals can chart a course for any faculty or student who seeks to find a path to a sustainable future. At SSEC we use it as a map to guide our Smithsonian Science for Global Goals project.

Going on a journey

I am now a developer working on the Smithsonian Science for Global Goals project, which aims to provide educators and young people with the resources they need to travel to education for a sustainable future. Recognizing that educators need support, this series of handbooks provides opportunities to identify, understand and act on a variety of global issues related to topics such as COVID-19, food and nutrition, mosquito-borne diseases, sustainable communities, vaccines, biodiversity , and environmental justice. Thanks to these guides, young people can go on their initial travels and understand how important their role can be. They start with a survey and end with becoming young change agents, able to take informed action to make their local and global communities more resilient. Today’s youth will probably live the longest in the common future we all create, let’s give them a chance to help create the future they want.


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