SUSTAINABILITY WEEK: Why does sustainability matter in the language classroom?

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Owain Llewellyn is an ELT teacher and the founder of ELT Sustainable, a website that supports language teachers to incorporate environmental issues in their lessons. Here, he considers the importance of this and offers some practical ideas to introduce sustainability subtly (!) into the classroom.

In the 1990s Jim Scrivener focussed on a lesson observation in which a student tells the teacher that they are feeling bad because their grandfather recently ‘dies’. Instead of offering condolences, the teacher corrects the student telling them to say ‘died’, not ‘dies’, because it’s past tense. While this is insensitive, many of us teachers have felt pressure to keep the door between the world of the classroom and that of the outside world firmly shut. There is an ongoing discussion about how much these two worlds should be bridged. This holds true whether it is a student mentioning a personal issue in the class or whether it is the climate emergency…

I’d like you to imagine for a minute the following scenario. A student in your class says ‘I feel bad because many people is losing their livelihood because of climate change’. Should you respond by saying ‘many people are losing their livelihood, not is losing, because it’s plural’ or should you highlight the error, elicit why it is wrong and bridge that gap, prompting them to talk more, eliciting their concerns, opinions, and even viable solutions as well as offering feedback on this language input? If the second option is more appropriate, then surely, we should be taking a proactive approach to opening our classrooms up as spaces to explore these issues. Furthermore, this will result in a richer language learning environment.

What are the barriers?

What discourages teachers from bringing sustainability to their classes? I put the question on several teaching Facebook groups and these were the responses:

  • We worry that we are not experts in environmental issues and we will face tough technical questions e.g. what 2 degrees of warming means, or what the environmental impact of a phone is.
  • Learners are inundated with green issues already.
  • Our busy schedules are a barrier.
  • We worry we cannot cover complex topics like environmental issues with lower-level groups.
  • Students can find the topic ‘boring, predicatable and unappealing.’

If this presents a gloomy picture, then it is time to look at some solutions.

What are the solutions?

Let us drop the idea of the ‘environment unit’ that comes up once a term in the coursebook. Sustainability permeates every aspect of our lives. Furthermore, doing this avoids the predictability associated with a lesson on the environment.
phone with plants growing out of itLet us imagine, instead, that you are teaching a lesson about everyday objects. Many coursebooks and syllabuses feature it. Now we are going to ‘hack it’ with a green twist. So, you’re not an expert in environmental issues? Don’t worry. You are an expert language teacher!

As a lead-in, put your learners in groups and show them your phone. Elicit where they think it was made, tell them where you bought it and elicit where it will go when it dies. Give them time to create the autobiography of your phone, being as creative as they like. Remix the groups so they compare their autobiographies and then feedback to the class. You still have not said anything about the environment…

Now you strike! Ask them to discuss in groups what the environmental impact of your phone is and what ways there are to reduce this. Congratulations – You have raised environmental awareness by stealth! Now you have a choice. If you have a busy schedule, you continue with the everyday objects unit in the coursebook or syllabus, happy to have brought sustainability into your lesson as you do pronunciation: little and often.

Other options

Alternatively, you can extend the topic further with this activity about our old phones, or use Jill and Charlie Hadfield’s wonderful lesson ‘An Autobiography of a Piece of Junk’ on page 37 of the British Council’s Integrating global issues in the creative English language classroom.

If your class is lower-level, simplify the task while keeping an environmental focus. You can do this by showing two people with phones, telling the class that one person buys a new phone every year and the other buys one every four years. Elicit which person is being green and which one isn’t. Then ask the class to survey how often their classmates buy new phones and therefore who is the ‘greenest’ person in the class by asking ‘How often do you buy a new phone?’ The bonus is that you’ll make the student with the old phone feel good! If you have done all this, you’ve also dealt with the last issue – that students find the topic ‘boring, predictable, and unappealing’ – with a lesson that is quite the opposite!

In conclusion

Sustainability is a way to deal with matters that are having a bigger impact on our students’ lives by the year. Surely we should be empowering our learners to take part in the international sustainability dialogue. This will empower them to be part of the solutions in their language learning journey and beyond.

You can learn more about how to approach this by joining the ELT Footprint Facebook group to connect with like-minded teachers. The British Council also run free courses called Climate Action in ELT.


If you have enjoyed this article, why not read another on how to approach climate change with your students.