Sustainability Matters: A Pen-Friend Learning Approach

Sustainability, circular economy, water management and climate change are topics strongly interconnected and for which a clear understanding is a must for present and mostly future generations. Awareness on these topics should be developed at an early age, so that ideas regarding sustainability can become part of the core “values” of individuals. Such an approach should be accompanied by appropriate methodologies, of easy implementation, requiring minimal financial requirements and resources and involving methods pedagogically accepted.

Unfortunately, two thirds of school-aged children (3-17 years old) have no access to the internet, making usage of media as a learning purpose an impossible mission. This situation was exacerbated and became more evident during the COVID 19 pandemic, as the need for a basic computer and internet was understood as a necessity to all countries across the world, showing clearly that this is a global problem.

In order to address this issue, in 2019, a global initiative designated as Giga was launched by UNICEF and ITU, which aims to map the connectivity requirements on schools across different countries and define affordable, appropriate, secure and reliable technological solutions to be implemented. So far, this initiative has reached different countries from Latin America and Eastern Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. The project will continue to further expand and relies on both private and public funding initiatives. Giga has meanwhile mapped out about 920,000 schools in 35-40 countries with internet needs.

Although an important starting point, the Giga Project consists of a “mapping initiative, meaning that the real availability of internet resources for all school-aged children is unfortunately still a distant reality. Significant work will be ahead of us to ensure not only availability of internet as such, but also reliable and stable network coverage, availability of computers as well as hardware/software maintenance/troubleshooting knowledge at the site.

The question is, therefore, what can meanwhile be done to ensure that school-aged children are exposed and are capable of learning about sustainability-related topics.

How can one use this issue as an opportunity to connect future generations and let them learn from each other's experiences, cultural and social differences, and with that ensure a more sustainable future.

An idea would be to start by creating interchange projects between schools/students from different countries which would rely as little as possible on the internet and network tools and would (still) make use of more traditional methods (e.g. printed material, standard mail instead of email, etc) as the main mean of communication’ exchange. On top, a learning experience in which there is a real bilateral learning scheme, whereby children from different cultural and social backgrounds can exchange knowledge and reach an understanding and acknowledgement of the richness of variety and difference. A child from a lower-income family can certainly teach a lot to a child from a higher income family about sustainability, namely the value and proper use of food, resource optimization, balanced use of resources, respect for nature, improvisation and adjustability. A possible approach would be to have children interacting with other children, in a simplified “old fashioned” manner, at least till projects and initiatives like Giga are followed by the integration of more digital communications tools.

An exchange of knowledge across countries, cultures and backgrounds could profit from a more “human” experience, a “one-to-one” interaction, some kind of “pen-friend” cross-knowledge experiment, with some (even if limited, “adult” guidance). The support of an adult (preferably school teacher) could include the development of training/information printed material, covering relevant topics related with sustainability, circularity, other relevant topics), adapted and adjusted towards social, language and other relevant aspects of the target audience. This work could be also done with the support of volunteer work. In addition, children from the different involved countries could have joint written assignments and projects addressing relevant issues such as recyclability, environment, and circularity.

Exposure to reality with a tangible “pen-friend” might be an easy tool to connect and enable knowledge transfer across different countries, cultures and backgrounds. While we wait for more modern and digital solutions, we should find solutions to help children understand the urgent need of finding an equilibrium in the way we use our limited resources and enable spontaneous engagement, interest and motivation to exchange knowledge and experience about sustainable topics.