The Big Ideas of Sustainability—A Short List

Interdependence: Connections exist between all aspects of life. The human condition is linked to that of the environment.

Balance: There must be equilibrium within a system and between systems for sustainability.

Change Over Time: All organisms/places/systems are constantly changing.

Community: All communities involve nested economic, environmental, and social systems so it becomes important to understand the interconnections to come up with sustainable solutions.

Cycles: Every organism/system goes through different stages.

Diversity: Systems/places function because of variety.

Equity/Fairness: Resources need to be shared to meet the needs of living things across places and generations.

Limits: Every system has a carrying capacity and our planet’s resources are finite. The number of humans that can live a healthy life is limited by natural resources and systems.

Long Term Effects: Actions will have effects beyond immediate reactions.

Quality of Life: Universal human needs must be met to provide a decent quality of life, including food, water, shelter, companionship and respect.

Systems Thinking: We must take into account the complex interaction of all parts in a system. This helps us understand local/global communities as systems of interdependent parts, whose natural, social and economic environments all interact with and affect each other.

© copyright 2010-2019, Erika Zimmerman, Education for Sustainability Network, revised by Community Works Institute (CWI)

Essential Questions

Essential questions get to the core of what you think students should be looking at and attempting to understand. Using questions rather than statements is a way to engage students in learning. Instead of telling them what they will learn, the question offers opportunities for student inquiry, investigation, and interpretation. Essential questions may be thought of as a conceptual “umbrella” for what you will cover in an activity, curriculum, or program.

Examples of essential questions are:

• In what ways has our community changed over time?

• How does where we are influence who we are?

• What does nature teach us about diversity?

“These types of questions cannot be answered satisfactorily in a sentence—and that’s the point. To get at matters of deep and enduring understanding, we need to use provocative and multilayered questions that reveal the richness and complexities of a subject.” —Wiggins and McTighe

Focusing Questions

Focusing questions serve as organizational tools for teaching from week to week, tying together standards and activities. They are questions used to shape a unit of study, to intrigue and focus students on the issues at hand, and to develop strong intellectual habits. They should be important and relevant to the learner, and they should help organize the search for new answers. For example, focusing questions related to the essential question, “How can we care for and protect our community?” might include:

• “What is a community?”

• “Who shares our natural and human community?”

• “What is already happening in our community to preserve culture and natural resources?” and so on.

Focusing questions, like essential ones, involve complex answers and lead to enduring understanding of the topic. They also drive the ongoing assessment needed to support and evaluate student progress.

Essential and focusing questions can recur across the curriculum and through the years. They frame the learning, engage the learner, link to more specific or more general questions, and guide the exploration and uncovering of important ideas.

More Examples of Focusing Questions

•What is change? How do living things adapt to keep living?
•What is a habitat? What do humans and nature need to live?
•What patterns exist in your community?
•Why do animals or humans move from place to place?
•Where is my community? Where do I live?
•Who lives in my community?  Who are my neighbors and what are they doing out there?
•Is there a difference between wants and needs?
•What needs does our community have?
•What programs, projects, or organizations exist to meet needs in our community?
•Which needs do these organizations meet?
•How does the health of a community influence its future?•How is human health related to the environment?
•What is a system?  What systems are you a part of, how do you affect them, how do they affect you?
•How are human and natural systems interrelated?
•What is energy? Can we create a sustainable energy system?
•What can communities learn from natural systems to improve our common future?

© copyright 2010-2017, by Erika Zimmerman, Education for Sustainability Network,
 revised by Community Works Institute

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