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Practical Approaches to the Teaching of Sustainability and Development Education

Contributed by Bill Graham and Sue Bird, Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses, Westbourne Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 3TR, UK.

Waking Up

When we get out of bed every morning, wash, dress, eat breakfast and brush our teeth, we are entering a relationship with plants from around the world. The project that will be described has taken a few every day items and investigated issues of sustainability for some of their plant material ingredients, such as aloe vera and palm oil.

The Process

The Study Centre at Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses has successfully worked in partnership with Birmingham Development Education Centre (DEC) on many projects over a number of years. By working collaboratively and sharing resources and skills, much can be achieved to explore ways of teaching about sustainability. Development education is all about:

  • the major global, social, economic, environmental and political issues which affect us all;
  • making these issues accessible and exploring the challenges they raise;
  • exploring attitudes and assumptions;
  • seeing knowledge in context; and
  • developing the skills necessary for effective participation in the world.

Having planned an outline of the project with the DEC, the concept was advertised to local schools and interested teachers through an initial meeting. From this, a group was formed, with each school committing themselves to the project by agreeing to a contract. This was useful because it ensured that everyone was clear as to what was expected of them.

A series of meetings during the day and after school took place during which a series of activities were carried out in order to develop a common understanding of sustainability in the context of the project. This provided a springboard for creative curriculum work. From our experience, we have found that groups of teachers appreciate the opportunity of working with other schools in order to share ideas and experiences.

Each teacher then worked with their pupils back at school with the initial emphasis on teachers and pupils as researchers; writing letters to companies, applying book based skills and using information technology. In addition, each school brought groups to Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses to look at the source plants and make connections with the places that they are grown. The key challenge was to use this information to ask natural, social, economic and political questions which were global (i.e. where the plants are grown), local (i.e. where the plants are sold) and about trade between the two. Throughout this stage, it was important to teachers that links were being made to aspects of the curriculum they were required to cover, including literacy, geography, science, information technology and citizenship.


The group has been working on a collation of their ideas, activities and experiences, which is to be published shortly by the DEC.

The main findings from the project were that the children:

  • found it difficult to gather current information about the plants and their products;
  • discovered they had to look at the information provided with critical awareness;
  • were able to consider that there was more than one point of view and value the opinions of others;
  • became more proficient at articulating their opinions;
  • began to understand cause and effect and were able to see that a decision they made now could affect the lives of others for better or for worse in years to come; and
  • are now aware that there are no easy one way routes to sustainability.

For More Information:

Development Education Centre
998, Bristol Road, Selly Oak, Birmingham, B29 6LE, UK.

Telephone: +44 (0)121 472 3255
Fax. +44 (0)121 415 2322

They can produce further details of teacher produced resources.