I recently completed my Master’s degree in Education for Sustainability – an area of education I didn’t even know existed until I found myself in it! I am passionate about better preparing our students to be active citizens who will not shy away from global issues but instead have the skills and attitudes needed to take collective action for a more sustainable and just future.
We are more connected than we realise, and we have much more in common than we think. As an educator working in international schools, I feel I have both a unique opportunity and a level of responsibility to help students become aware of global issues, recognise their role, and empower them to improve their communities. But how does this relate to health?
A lens for looking at the multifaceted issues of sustainability in any classroom is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 17 goals, 169 targets and nine more years to reach them. They are lofty goals that include zero poverty, education for all, gender equality and climate action. The most obvious SDG that connects with the Health classroom is Goal #3 Good Health and Wellbeing “Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages”.
While the goals were not written for educators, many teachers worldwide are bringing the goals into their classrooms. What better place to begin transformative global change than in the school?
If you are interested in looking for ways to introduce the SDGs to your class, you will likely find you are already covering some of the content areas in your health curriculum standards. The targets under Goal #3 include – ending communicable diseases, promoting mental health and wellbeing, preventing substance abuse, and ensuring universal access to sexual health education. Perhaps you already have units based on some of these themes. However, sustainability is complex and interconnected. Instead of just teaching about mental health and pointing out that this belongs to SDG #3, you could ask your students to explore how mental health connects to other SDGs. What is the relationship between poverty (SDG #1) and mental health? Gender equality (SDG #5) and mental health? Decent work (SDG #8) and mental health? Once we start to notice that everything is connected and that in order to promote mental health, we also need to promote the other goals, then we are heading in the right direction.
An interesting example of a comprehensive health curriculum that includes sustainability is the New Zealand HPE Curriculum. Within it is a strand on socio-ecological perspective that “enables students to view, and increasingly understand, the complex interrelationships between social, political, economic, cultural and environmental factors, and how these contribute to the wellbeing of groups and individuals.” In other words, understanding how social determinants of health (power, money. politics etc.) influence the health of populations. This could empower students to understand perhaps why their community may struggle with a particular health problem and what kind of action would be needed to address this at a community level.
Some specific examples of how I’ve attempted to weave sustainability into my health classroom include looking at the concept of environmental health, with students sharing how connecting to nature impacts their wellbeing. It is a powerful and tangible feeling, the rush of swimming in the ocean, summiting a mountain, or climbing a tree, and students have many stories to share. A positive connection to nature in childhood has been associated with a greater sense of wellbeing, positive development and self-reported good health (Chawla 2020).
In nutrition, students have researched how they can eat for the planet, learning the impacts of their food choices not only on their physical health but on the environment. In our sexual health unit, students looked at access to education, researched stigmas in sexual health and created an advocacy project to break the taboo or dispel the myths. Broadening the health classroom discussions to include equality, social responsibility, and sustainability can make learning more authentic, meaningful, and engaging for some students. Bring the world into your Health classroom and see where it takes you.
Want to know more? Check out these resources:
- The World’s Largest Lesson
- UN Sustainable Development Goals
- Teach SDGs (follow #TeachSDGs on Twitter)
- Inspire Citizens
- New Zealand HPE Curriculum
- Education for Sustainable Development Goals UNESCO Publication
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