Bringing Sustainable Happiness to Life
Living Schools

By Catherine O'Brien • November 26, 2013

In a previous blog post I shared the inspiring story of the Schoolyard Market Garden, a collaborative project between Vancouver Technical Secondary and Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society.  The garden is an example of the kind of education that models Living Schools, an essential concept to consider for anyone who is interested in reforming or transforming education. Living Schools can integrate the many progressive visions for revitalizing education – Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), 21st century learning, Health Promoting Schools, entrepreneurship education, social and emotional learning, along with a creative culture that nurtures the passions of children and teachers.

Through this one schoolyard garden project students learn practical skills that help them feel connected to the community and nature, and that connection is likely to bring an experience of well-being. They are actively engaged in a healthy endeavor that teaches them about sustainable lifestyles. As a market garden, they’ll learn entrepreneurship skills. The project is also complex enough to draw upon diverse learning styles and passions, from construction to promotion. And they spend time outside!

This schoolyard market gardenVancourver Schoolyard garden copy is not an isolated example. David Thompson Secondary also launched a garden last spring, working with the Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society. In Australia, there is a Living Schools organization. In Europe, the Living Schools Lab explores applications of information and communication technology (ICT) for social learning. It’s a network of 12 Ministries of Education.

Why Living Schools?

I hear almost daily from teachers, administrators and education consultants that there is an urgent need to create more positive and innovative school cultures. They ponder questions about 21st century education – what education practices ought be retained? What new ones are needed?

It’s evident that a transformation of education is essential, for the benefit of our students and for society. It’s daunting for teacher education institutions, educators and administrators to determine what vision to follow. If we embrace 21st century learning competencies we will supposedly prepare our students to be successful and competitive in a rapidly changing global context. Yet these competencies don’t always embrace sustainability in the vision. One could argue that a 21st century learning vision without ESD would be modernizing education to support an unsustainable trajectory. Furthermore, teachers are reporting increasing incidences of student mental health challenges and struggle with concerns such as bullying, substance abuse, and anxiety.  The need for preventive measures is paramount and the exemplary work of Health Promoting Schools (HPS) offers a valuable framework and resources. In Canada, the Joint Consortium for School Health developed a Positive Mental Health Toolkit for educators to assess and plan for positive school health.

How could educators possibly implement all of the diverse visions for transforming education? Each one on its own has tremendous merit but no single one addresses all of the factors that must be considered if education is going to genuinely contribute to student well-being and sustainable societies.

My recommendation is for educators and education policy to find the ideal nexus where these diverse principles, competencies and visions converge. Living Schools illustrates how this can happen and how this is already happening. You likely have examples of a Living Schools initiative in your region (even though it may not have that label). Please share those with me and I’ll spread the word. Email:

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