Youth Projects for Sustainable Development

by: Graham Harper

"...without significant precautions, education can equip people merely to be more effective vandals of the earth."
(Orr, cited by Hicks 1999, pg. 248)

The above quote has grave implications for educators and, if believed, or even partly believed, poses a challenge for educational change that must be met worldwide. As a high school teacher of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) my belief is that such change is necessary. I have been fortunate enough to work in various parts of the world with wonderful teachers and students, yet too often, the Orr quotation applies. Students may study global issues but are ill equipped to bring about personal, community, or global change. They lack the ability to communicate effectively (communicative competency), the experience to plan and carry out an action (action competency), or the skills to differentiate between a variety of views on an issue (critical thinking). Such deficiencies make it difficult for youth to participate in a meaningful way in the emergence of a Global Civil Society (GCS). If young people are to share in the global decision making process and create a sustainable future, education must change in order to equip them with the necessary skills.

The desire to better educate for sustainability (EfS) led two teams of high schoolteachers, one in Japan and one in Thailand, to develop community-based sustainable business projects at their schools. However, before outlining these exemplary projects in detail, this paper will look at the confusion surrounding worldviews for sustainability, and the resulting educational debate. The confusion, rather than negating educational value, becomes the rationale for integrating communicative/action competence and critical thinking skills into the curriculum. To begin with I will clarify what exactly is meant by these terms?



Communicative competence "...refers to the ability to use speech appropriately in varying social contexts. Competent speakers of a language should know what to say, to whom, and how to say it." (Carel, 1997). For a speaker to have this competence they must have confidence in their language ability, and opinions. Confidence can be built by acquiring the language through progressive tasks requiring true and meaningful communication using all four, language skills - speaking, reading, listening and writing. Having communicative competence in one or more foreign languages is an obvious advantage for participation in GCS.

Action competence is the ability to identify problems, make decisions on possible solutions, and finally plan and carry out actions for solutions (Jensen and Schnack, 1994). As Holden and Clough point out, "Without action competence the pupil is in danger of engaging in participation at a superficial level, with little understanding of the issues." (1998, pg. 18) For the growing number of international conferences and civil society organisations calling for youth participation, action competence has become essential.

Critical thinking skills give the ability to analyse and evaluate differing views on an issue to reach an honest, informed conclusion. To ensure this competency, a critical thinking pedagogy is required (Gocsik, 1997). Benjamin Bloom, et al (1956,1964) developed a curriculum methodology that included a hierarchy of skills designed to foster critical thinking. Knowledge formed the base, followed by comprehension, application of concepts, analysis of the relationship between parts, synthesis of parts into a new whole, and finally an evaluation of the value of material.

Global Civil Society (GCS)
GCS (Korsgaard, 1997) is an informal, global network of people and groups working toward a moral balance between the market place, nation states, and global institutions. The GCS tackles problems such as world trade, economic and education gender gaps, equitable resource allocation and environmental degradation. The GCS both formally and informally contributes to decisions made on how our world will develop based on moral and ethical judgments. As yet this has not distinctly emerged because of the very inequalities that the GCS is trying to contend with.

Education for Sustainability (EfS)
EfS is a multidisciplinary approach to educating for the enjoyment, development and respect for the quality and variety of all life on our planet, both today and in the future. We live in the present but are educated on experiences from the past, while our hopes and ambitions are placed in the future. EfS is therefore concerned with blending the varied academic agendas (economics, politics, civics, ecology, sciences, maths and languages) of yesterday, today and tomorrow with global issues (peace, human rights, environment, development, gender / race equality). EfS encourages students to examine their own concept of time and learning and how it relates to them individually in building sustainable futures within their families, communities, nations and the global community.

Project Work
Project work is content-based tasks, which take the students outside the classroom in order to creatively address a problem or situation in the community. When integrating EfS into EFL through project work the goal is to develop the students' communicative / action competence and critical thinking skills.

Project work requires site specific, realistic materials. As a result there are few if any commercially produced, ready-to-use, materials available for teachers. Instead, teachers must rely on their own ingenuity and resourcefulness to create, and adapt the necessary materials.

Project work requires that teachers accept a significant change in their roles and responsibilities as educators. It also requires a change in views regarding students' roles and responsibilities as learners. Teachers must become facilitators working in partnership with students to promote learning for all involved. 

Traditional Teaching

Project Work Facilitating
Teacher's Role

An authority giving knowledge to students.

A project organizer and resource person working in collaboration with students, school and local business.

Student's Role

A receiver of knowledge, motivated to achieve marks or academic accreditation.

An active project leader, using own experiences and available knowledge. Motivated to achieve successful project conclusion.

Teacher - Student relationship

Teacher is authority that directs and controls relationship, imposing learning on student.

Shared responsibility, with teacher acting as coordinator, in negotiation with students.


Objective and usually existing in books. Emphasis on core subjects.

Multidiscipline, using both objective and subjective sources, scientific and traditional knowledge.

adapted from Fien, J. (1993)

The above competencies and skills are necessary for a competent speaker of a foreign language, empowered by action competence and critical thinking skills to evaluate and then take action amongst the popularity of sustainability?


Sustainability and Educational Debate

Sustainability is popular (Nectoux, 1996). Popularity has turned it into "...a supreme value on which all other values must converge..."(Sauve, 1998). Further, a variety of worldviews has created "...such semantic inflation that it now includes every good intention in the world" (ibid). This semantic inflation, while elevating sustainability to a supreme value, has become weakened its definition to the point where its educational value is debatable.

The debate questions whether or not sustainability can, or should be, included in curriculum. Opponents question if it is:

"...ethically acceptable to restructure education around a concern for development and to hope that it will be sustainable, ... and impose the concept of sustainable development on current and future populations or groups who might wish to propose other frames of reference?" (Sauve, 1998)

While proponents argue that:

"Growing attention to sustainability has provided the opportunity for a fresh start and what will hopefully be a temporary phase in the continuing development of environmental education. Then sustainability will join democracy as a concept that students begin to discursively construct and realise within coherent programmes of global citizenship education." (Huckle, 1999)

The debate does not end there. Some equate conditions for successful sustainable development with education (World Bank 1991). Others criticise education's' limited success to promote sustainability because of educational values that, are themselves, unsustainable. (Sterling 2000) Tilbury (1999) wisely points out that many educators have yet to critically reflect on their work and how it affects sustainability.


Definitions of Sustainable Development

The ability to critically reflect upon our work / lives, and how we affect sustainability, is what education should promote. However, when questioned about the meaning of sustainable development, some may only offer the well-known Bruntland Report's definition.

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (WCED, 1987 p. 43.)

However, this definition is only a starting point. In the ensuing 14 years there have been many other groups and individuals who have offered their own definitions. Consider the following differing worldviews on sustainability:

A) "...sustainable development means adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders today while protecting, sustaining and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future" (International Institute for Sustainable Development, 1997)

B) "...globally, there will only be environmental quality when there is human equality." (Agyeman, pg. 19, 1991)

C) "Sustainable development is a process rather than a fixed goal...It is a complex concept, involving social justice, equity and concern for the future, as well as environmental and development issues." (UK Department of Environment, Transport and Regions, 1999)

D) "A development or general pattern of change within and among communities, societies, or cultures is ecologically sustainable if it is compatible with restoring and maintaining the richness and diversity of planetary life (in the broadest sense)." (Naess, pg. 209, 1990)

Education needs to help students critically assess these various definitions. To assist global participation, education needs to help students discuss the issues, competently, in a targeted foreign language. Finally, education needs to help students to take action on their ideas. The question is - how can this be accomplished?


Community-based, Sustainable Development / Business Projects

Community-based, sustainable business projects introduced at the beginning of this article are one answer. They motivate students - which is the key. Content alone, no matter how realistic, will not achieve this. (Yamashiro, 1996) However, real-life, cooperative projects taking the students outside the traditional classroom create motivation. (Kluge 1999, Yamashiro and McLaughlin 1999, Servetter 1999) It is arguably time consuming and difficult to integrate such projects into crowded curricula. However, as the two examples below demonstrate - it is worth it!

Kamakura Jogakuin Girls' High School is a high academic private school an hour south of Tokyo, Japan. The majority of graduates are able to go on to four-year university programmes. Mukdaharn High School is a coed public school in Northeast Thailand. Few of the graduates are able to go on to four-year university programmes. Apart from the obvious geographic and cultural differences, the schools share many similarities. Both are based on a modernity education model at a time when postmodernity is challenging traditional methods. Both are strict, yet the teacher/student relationships are excellent. Both have a dynamic and enthusiastic Foreign Language Department promoting English as a skill helpful for becoming a global citizen. Further, both schools are searching for new ways to meet changing curriculum demands from national education ministries (Mombusho, 1997, 1998, 2000,Thai National Education Act BE 2542). It was in these contexts that teachers at both schools independently developed community-based, sustainable business projects.

The projects are ongoing cooperative efforts between a school and a local business. Originally based on the ZERI Link Programme from England (Breakthrough Technologies, ZERI Foundation) the teachers have adapted and improved the projects to fit their specific needs. Kamakura Jogakuin is in its third year of partnership with Shiseido Cosmetics. The project is open to third-year high school students (17/18 year olds) and runs an entire academic year. Typically there are about 18 students who elect to join. Mukdaharn High School is starting its second year with Ploy Palace Hotel. The project is open to all junior and senior high school students (13-18 year olds) and is run over five intense days. Last year there were 94 students who participated. Both projects challenge students to use their English while learning how to adapt and implement sustainable business practices in a real life situation. In the projects students study the operations of the company and present their findings in English to the company's management. Finally their findings are published on the Internet to share with schools in other countries. The Kamakura Jogakuin and Mukdaharn High School projects do not simulate case studies -they deep-end students into actual business problems.


5 Steps to Sustainability

In order to give the quest for sustainability structure, five steps have been organized for the students to follow.

For each step students must assess the implications of the corresponding organizations' sustainable business theories, or methods.

Everyone is a teacher and a student (Agenda 21)
1)Is there an education program on environmental protection?
2)Do the people involved know how to find information on environmental protection?
3)Do the people involved know how to use information on environmental protection?
4)Has contact been made with other groups about environmental protection?
5)Is there a process to hear people's ideas on environmental protection?

Clean up your act (Cleaner Production / ISO 14000)
1)Is the site clean and organized?
2)Is there an inventory of all resources coming into the site?
3)Is there an inventory of what is being produced with each resource?
4)Is there an inventory of how much waste is being generated?
5)Does the inventory show where the waste is being disposed of?

Do more with less (Eco-Efficiency / Energy Efficiency / 4R's)
1)Is water, energy and materials use being minimized?
2)Are toxic materials being eliminated?
3)Are renewable resources (energy / materials) being used?
4)Are products or services designed for reuse or recovery?
5)Are the products or services designed to last a long time?

Look at the BIG picture (Green Procurement / Design for the Environment)
1)Is the source and type of raw materials considered when making or buying something?
2)Is the processing method of raw materials considered when making or buying something?
3)Is packaging and transportation considered when making or buying something?
4)Is product disposal by the end-user considered when making or buying something?
5)Is least environmental impact over the entire life cycle considered when making or buying something?

Be generous (By-Product Synergy / Industrial Ecology)
1)Is waste from one process being used in another process?
2)Is waste that cannot be used in another process being eliminated?
3)Are companies joining together to work in a cluster?
4)Is the cluster of industries making business stronger?
5)Is the cluster of industries making the environment stronger


They must then observe, probe and research a part of the company's production to answer five yes or no questions. The number of yes answers indicate how well the company is doing at each step. It is possible that the company is doing better in one area over another, and the students are made aware of the fact that there is no one single path toward sustainability. The five steps are also pictured below as a pentagon, with the goal being to move toward the centre by moving one step closer with each yes answer.

From one project to the next, by asking the same types of questions, students can see if the company has made any progress towards sustainability. This allows students to enjoy success and to reflect on learning steps. However, yes/no questions can limit the scope and imagination of the students' research. Therefore, throughout the process students are encouraged to develop their own questions and record them with answers for the next year's students to build upon. By following this system high school students are able to give valuable feedback to business managers. This involvement in real issues, while being tentative in endorsing any one path towards sustainability, does give hope to the students that sustainable goals can be achieved (Huckle, 1999).

By challenging the students to use their English in a true and meaningful way, communicative competence in a foreign language is developed. By having the students identify problems in a company's operations and plan and carry out actions within the local community, action competence is developed. Finally, by incorporating each level of Bloom's taxonomy into the projects' objectives critical thinking skills are developed.

Knowledge is the base of Bloom's taxonomy. On it all other levels of thinking depend. Knowledge is the learning of facts, methods and procedure. A knowledge objective in the projects was "Students will identify and list the recommendations of different organisations' and or their theories for sustainable development"

Comprehension is the next higher order of thinking. It is the understanding or grasping of meaning. Comprehension is shown by summarizing, interpreting or explaining. A comprehension objective in the projects was "Students will summarize and explain how sustainable development could affect their lives - at home, school and in the work force."

Application is the ability to use material that has been learned and apply it. Application is shown when rules, laws or theories are applied to solve a problem or new situation. An application objective in the projects was "Students will recommend a change to a business operation and predict how it will affect sustainability."

Analysis refers to the ability to probe different parts of a theory and derive or make sense of the relationship between parts. Analysis requires understanding of both content and structural form. An analysis objective in the projects was "Students will relate how sustainable business practices in their sponsor company affect the economy and environment of the local community."

Synthesis is the ability to put parts together to form something new. Synthesis is shown by the production of a theme, speech, plan of action, research proposal or classification of new information. A synthesis objective in the projects was "Students will prepare and give a presentation to company management on a plan of action to achieve sustainable business practices."

Evaluation is Bloom's highest thinking skill. It contains parts of all other thinking skills. It is concerned with the ability to judge the value of material for a given purpose. The judgment must rest on definite criteria. An evaluation objective in the projects was "Students will judge the effectiveness of their presentations to defend the practicality of their recommendations."



The projects at Kamakura Jogakuin and Mukdaharn High School are great successes. They prove that high school students are capable of tackling real-life business situations and presenting realistic recommendations to company managers. Further, they show that confusion surrounding the definition and implementation of sustainable development, rather than negating educational value, is an opportunity to build necessary competencies for our students. As an EFL teacher who is now focused on integrating communicative competence and action competence with critical thinking skills to help youth participate in the GCS, the results of the projects have been most satisfying.

"I have never seen my students study so eagerly before!"

Thai English teacher

"I have never thought of things like this before!"

Japanese English student

"I wish all our classes could be project work."

Thai English student



- Breakthrough Technologies, ZERI Link Programme, [on line] available: (29/09/01)

- Carel, S. (1997) 'Multimedia / Hypermedia and Communicative Competence in Foreign Language' (WWW)

- (U.K.) Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, 1999, Supporting Sustainable Development through Educational Resources: A voluntary Code of Practice [on line] available: (05/04/01)

- Fien, J. (1993) Table 2.1 'Major characteristics of the vocational / neoclassical, liberal / progressive and socially critical orientations in education', from Chapter 2 in Education for the Environment - Critical curriculum theorising and environmental education. pp. 20-21 Deakin University

- Gocsik, Karen 1997, Teaching Critical Thinking [on line] available: (07/19/01)

- Hicks, D., (1999) 'Hope, Human and Wild: Education for a new Millennium', in Grunsell, A. and Wade, R. (eds), 2000, Unit 2 Reader - Processes and Management of Change, London, South Bank University. ISBN 1 900768 34 8

- Holden, C., and Clough, N., (1998) 'The Child Carried on the Back does not Know the Length of the Road - The Teacher's Role in Assisting Participation', in Holden, C., and Clough, N., (eds) Children as Citizens Education for Participation, London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

- Huckle, J., 1991 A, 'Education for Sustainability: Assessing Pathways to the Future' in Nectoux, F., 1996, Unit 4 Reader - Theories and Perspectives on Environment and Development, London, South Bank University

- Huckle, J., 1991 B, 'The nine components of education for the environment' in Grunsell, A. and Wade, R. (eds), 2000, Unit 2 Reader - Processes and Management of Change, London, South Bank University. ISBN 1 900768 34 8

- Huckle, J. 1999, Locating Environmental Education Between Modern Capitalism and Postmodern Socialism: A Reply to Lucie Sauve Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 4 / 99 [on line] available: (May 5, 2001)

- Huckle, J. 2000 'Modernity and Postmodernity: Understanding society and its relocation to the biophysical world' in Douglas, L. and Parker, J., (eds), 2000, Unit 1 Reader - Introduction to Environmental and Development Education, London, South Bank University. ISBN 1 900768 32 1

- International Institute of Sustainable Development, 1997, Introduction - The Sustainable Development Journey [on line] available: (05/04/01)

- Jacobs, G. et. al., 1998 Linking Language and the Environment Greening the ESL Classroom Toronto, Pippin Publishing

- Jensen, B., and Schnack, K., (1994), 'Action Competence as an educational challenge' in Grunsell, A. and Wade, R. (eds), 2000, Unit 2 Reader - Processes and Management of Change, London, South Bank University. ISBN 1 900768 34 8

- Kluge, D., 1999 'A Brief Introduction to Cooperative Learning' in Kluge, D. et al (eds.) Cooperative Learning, Japan Association for Language Teaching

-Korsgaard, O. (1997), 'The Impact of Globalization on Adult Education' in Walter, S. (ed.) Chapter 2 in Globalisation, Adult Education and Training, pp. 15 - 26, Zed Books ISBN 1 86201 026 9

- Manley, M., 1991, 'Theories and Praxis of Development' in Nectoux, F., 1996, Unit 4 Reader - Theories and Perspectives on Environment and Development, London, South Bank University

- Mombusho, 1997, Program for Educational Reform (Revised August 5, 1997) [on line] available: (10/15/00)

- Mombusho, 1998, Synopsis of the Curriculum Council's Midterm Report [on line] available: (10/15/00)

- Mombusho, 2000, G8 Education Ministers' Meeting, Tokyo 1- 2 April 2000, Chair's Summary [on line] available: (05/05/01)

- Naess, A., 1990, 'Sustainable development and deep-ecology' in Nectoux, F., 1996, Unit 4 Reader - Theories and Perspectives on Environment and Development, London, South Bank University

- Nectoux, F., 1996 Unit 4 Theories and Perspectives on Environment and Development: Study Guide London, South Bank University

- Pearce, et. al., 1990, 'Sustainable development: ecology and economic progress' in Nectoux, F., 1996, Unit 4 Reader - Theories and Perspectives on Environment and Development, London, South Bank University

- Peet, R., 1991, 'Dependency and world systems theories' in Nectoux, F., 1996, Unit 4 Reader - Theories and Perspectives on Environment and Development, London, South Bank University

- Pepper, D., 1996, Modern Environmentalism: An Introduction, London, Routledge.

- Sauve, L, 1998, Environmental Education: Between Modernity and Postmodernity-Searching for an integrating educational framework On Line Colloquium - Environment Canada [on line] available: (05/23/01)

- Servetter, B., 1999 'Cooperative Learning and Learner-Centred Projects for Lower-Level University Students' in Kluge, D. et al (eds.) Cooperative Learning, Japan Association for Language Teaching

- Sterling, S. 2000, Ecological democracy: the politics of education for sustainable development UNED Forum - Education Conference [online] available: (05/07/01)

- Thai National Education Act of BE 2542 (1999), Bangkok, Office of National Education Commission [on line], available: (09/08/01)

- Tilbury, D., 1999, International Debate on Education for Sustainable Development [on line], available: (05/07/01)

- World Bank, 1991, 'Paths to development' in Nectoux, F., 1996, Unit 4 Reader - Theories and Perspectives on Environment and Development, London, South Bank University

- World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), 1987, Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press

- Yamashiro, A. 1996, Integrating Global Issues into High School EFL [on line] available: (05/26/01)

- Yamashiro, A. and McLaughlin, J. 1999 'The EFL NGO Forum: Integrating Cooperative Learning and Global Issues' in Kluge, D. et al (eds.) Cooperative Learning, Japan Association for Language Teaching

- ZERI Foundation, [on line] available: