4 April 2022

Why New Zealand excels in sustainability education

Andrew Smith

As the world warms and societies place more strain on the planet’s resources, a new generation of students is seeking to shape a more sustainable future.

New Zealand offers a range of short specialist online courses built around the theme of sustainability and how to think about environmental challenges in new ways. Available to students around the world, these courses on the FutureLearn platform, which range from two to fifteen weeks, offer a fresh perspective on sustainability by drawing on New Zealand’s rich cultural history.

The courses are offered by 14 different education providers, including Te Pūkenga, New Zealand’s largest higher education provider, which brings together the expertise of the country’s regional institutes of technology and polytechnics. The courses offer specialist knowledge with practical skills and innovative thinking, making learners attractive hires for employers around the world.

Otago Polytechnic’s Ron Bull helped develop the course “Sustainability and Biculturalism” and he thinks New Zealand has a lot to contribute to global discussions about sustainability.

“One of the founding documents for our society is Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi), which is an agreement signed in 1840 between Māori and the British Crown about how these two cultures would work together in the future.

“While Te Tiriti was ignored for a long time, it’s become recognised as central to understanding the relationship between Māori and non-Māori, and guides the way New Zealand society approaches all sorts of questions to this day."

“New Zealand is pretty unique in the world in the respect it gives to indigenous input on how society should work. There’s still plenty of work to do, but this belief in listening to Māori voices and thinking about how to integrate them into discussions about things like sustainability is what societies around the world need to do a lot more of.”

Wintec Academic Advisor Claudine Waitere agrees. She is one of the co-ordinators for the course “Solving Sustainability Challenges with Te Ao Māori” and she says long-term sustainability depends on recognising different worldviews, and combining the best bits of these perspectives.

“But it’s not just about how to take more from the world around us. It’s about respecting the wairua (spirit) of the environment, and how the natural world is bound up with our identities as individuals, and with our whānau (families) and iwi (tribes). When we think about how to protect our environment, we’re not only looking at how we can measure or calculate the damage being done to a river, for example, we’re also thinking about the damage that is being done to our culture and identity. And that encourages us to think about sustainability and possible solutions in a more holistic way.”

Claudine’s colleague, Principal Academic Staff Member Aidan Bigham, notes that the goal of the course is to encourage learners to ask similar questions about their own environments with a view to developing practical solutions.

“As well as exploring te ao Māori, this course also introduces learners to basic principles of design thinking, which is all about seeking out as many different perspectives on a problem with a view to creating a solution that combines the best of each.

“So although we talk to learners about the cultural significance of the Waikato awa (river), and what it means for the people who live in this region, we’re encouraging learners to go out into their own communities and ask similar questions about their environment. If learners are keen to explore design thinking further, we also offer a FutureLearn course looking at those principles and methodology in more detail.

“Communities in Africa or South America might think about the environment in a slightly different way to the way it’s treated in te ao Māori, but the basic principle is the same: Western science is not the only lens you can use to look at an environment, and the solutions to environmental challenges will be that much stronger and more sustainable if you consider alternate views.”

Developing a truly sustainable future will take considerable effort and investment from governments and societies around the world. But as a global problem, it requires a global solution. Thanks to these courses and others like them, a new generation of learners are well placed to contribute to this effort.

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About the contributors
Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith is a freelance writer based in Wellington, New Zealand. He spent several years studying English Literature at graduate and postgraduate level in the UK and Australia, before returning home to New Zealand to pursue a career in communications.