Education 21

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations

This is the text of the talk I gave at the Education-21 event in Zürich the other week.  Anyone familiar with my work will recognise the background to the arguments. What may be less familiar are my comments about the potential offered by the sustainable development goals for bringing educational arguments together into a more coherent way than is usually possible. I'll be writing more about all this in the coming weeks, and making an input about it at a West Midlands Sustainable Schools event on Wednesday.

Here's the Zürich input:

Education and Social Transformation

I have been asked to say something about sustainability and learning, about competences, and about teacher education, and I’m going to do this with social transformation in mind.  Such transformation has been urged upon us by the United Nations as a means of resolving the huge range of problems the world faces today.  It was a key idea within the Secretary-General’s recent synthesis report about sustainable development up to 2030.  Here’s the report’s title, which shows the challenge:

The road to dignity by 2030: ending poverty, transforming all lives and protecting the planet.

Let me risk being provocative by saying that I think that these ideas are in the wrong order.  I’d have put it like this:

The road to dignity by 2030: protecting the planet, transforming all lives and ending poverty

That’s because, unless we protect the biosphere from the damage we are doing to it, there’s no chance of ending poverty.  Indeed, it will increase.  I also think that we’re more likely to end poverty by transforming lives – rather than the other way round.

This is an extract from the Secretary-General’s report:

“Transformation is our aim.  We must ...

  • transform our economies, our environment and our societies.  
  • change old mindsets, behaviours and destructive patterns.  
  • build cohesive societies, in pursuit of international peace and stability.  …"

It went on to say that such a future is possible if we collectively mobilize political will and the necessary resources, and if we work together.  But the gulf between this vision, and where we are now, seems to be getting wider week by week.  So, how are we to do, what seems like a hugely difficult task?

For many, this will seem like a call for nothing less that the development of new worldviews to address, what some call, the sustainability problématique.

How can we all live well, without compromising the planet’s continuing ability to enable us all to live well.  

The need to do this, and its urgency, may well be common ground amongst all of us here.  We might differ, however, perhaps widely, on what the outcomes of such transformation ought to be.  We also might differ on how it’s to be achieved.  And differ, as well, on the role of education within it.  The UN report says how important it is that this happens …

 “young people receive relevant skills and high-quality education and life-long learning, from early childhood development to post-primary schooling, including life skills and vocational education and training.”

Of course, this is just to restate the 4th Sustainable Development Goal.  You’ll note that it says nothing about ESD, global learning, environmental education, and similar approaches.

Clearly, many educators think that education is the key to transformation, and this idea was a strong theme of some COP21 meetings in Paris, although not of the Paris Agreement itself.  You may well agree with this.  I can’t see it, myself, as I’ll now try to explain.  I’ll focus on the West, because it’s what I know about, although I recognize that there are other points of view, and other stories to be told – all with, perhaps, just as much validity.

In 1989, the biologist, Mary Clark, argued that in Western history there have only been two major periods of conscious social change and transformation.  In these, societies deliberately critiqued themselves and created new worldviews.  The first, she says, occurred in the Greek city states in the time of Pericles – between 500 and 400 BCE – where old ways of thinking became suspect and the first schools emerged.  Here, philosophers asked questions through public dialogues, and new lines of thought and social action emerged.  The result was a new status quo whose ideas and practices spread.

The second time, Clark said, was through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  In these, Western culture, through its natural and social philosophers, subjected itself to critical thought and renewal.  The result was the modern worldview that the West more or less retains today, and which many believe is implicated in the sustainability problems that affect us.  I think of Chet Bowers’ work on the mechanistic metaphors we live by, as a key idea here, though he is not alone.  The irony is, of course, that the Enlightenment also brought new values and political and social freedoms that many – and not just in the West – both try to live by, and would wish to defend.

Mary Clark argued that we need to

collectively create a new worldview that curbs ecological and social exploitation, and recreates social meaning

... and this sounds rather like what the UN is saying.  Clark saw that this process needed to be a society-wide, citizenly, phenomenon involving everyone – not just political, business, social, religious or cultural elites.  It’s clear that such processes now need to be global in scale and scope, given the global nature of the issues we face.

Many may well see evidence of this happening in such things as the Paris Agreement, and the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals.  A few optimists will also view UNESCO’s Global Action Plan and Roadmap in this light.  Some are also are likely to see it in ground-up social action such as the Divestment and Transition movements, and perhaps also in Occupy and Anonymous.  Though it seems clear that few will view Pegida, Golden Dawn, the Soldiers of Odin, and similar groups, in the same way.  Such activities might well be seen as attempts to address the sustainability problématique.

In the sustainability problématique, it’s the small words that are the difficult ones.  For example, what does  “well”  mean?  This is yet another thing we might disagree about.  Personally, I take my cue from Amartya Sen who talked of the point of development as being the ability to live a life that one has reason to value.  I imagine this is something everyone here is trying to do.  But just to say this is to illustrate its difficulty, and how far the world has to shift if we are to take that other small word  “all”  seriously.

Mary Clark saw such transformational endeavours as educational in the widest sense, but she understood that the process could not just be left to formal educational institutions and teachers.  She made a clear distinction between two processes.  The first of which is about fitting in with the status quo and its received norms and wisdoms.

  1. Moulding through cultural transmission
  2. Social renewal through a critique of beliefs and assumptions

The second, Clark said, can ease transformative change and create new ways of thinking and being.  Of course, cultural transmission, is one of the core purpose of schooling almost everywhere, and tends to be instrumental rather than transformative.  But social renewal is another purpose of schooling, and these two ideas can be said to represent continuity and change.  We might see them as conservative versus transformative.  Some would say, conservative versus democratic.  Importantly, a focus on personal growth and human fulfillment has also been a feature of many visions of education, particularly socially-liberal ones.

Tensions between such purposes have existed right from the beginning of schooling, and it’s always a balancing act to boost effectiveness, and minimize friction.  Such tensions are accentuated when existential socio-political issues arise, for example in times of war, or economic collapse, or, perhaps now, climate change.

In relation to what we’re interested in, this raises important questions.  For example, can schools strongly promote a commitment to the idea of a just and sustainable future for all, and still include the idea of personal growth and fulfilment?   Why not, we might say, as many national curricula now promote values connected with human rights and democracy, and this is often uncontroversial.  But it seems to me that schools now have so many social goals to fulfill that their ability to play a leading role in any such transformation is fatally compromised.  This is especially the case in an era of global comparative testing through processes such as PISA. This reveals the core paradox; that to change society, education and schools would themselves first need to be changed by that society.  For all these reasons, it seems to me that schools will struggle to play a leading transformative role.

For others, it’s not education, per se, but education for sustainable development – ESD – that has this transformative potential.  This is because ESD is a global idea that can bring together a wide variety of educational groups, and strategies, aimed at addressing our problems.  UNESCO has encouraged this view:

 “ESD, in the broadest sense is education for social transformation with the goal of creating more sustainable societies."

The appeal of ESD is clear as it can claim to bring together learning activities that examine the core elements of the problems facing us.

  1.  how living things depend on each other and on the biosphere,
  2. why there is such a widespread lack of social justice and human fulfillment across the world and what might be done about this, and
  3. how everyone’s quality of life is increasingly imperiled by our current economic models.

These link the quality of people’s lives (now and in the future), the economic and political systems these are embedded in, and the continuing supply of goods and services from the biosphere that underpin and drive such systems.  Thus the potential of ESD is that it might enable such deeply inter-related issues to be addressed together, so that we might come to understand, face up to, and then resolve, our sustainability issues.

This is the rhetoric, and you are familiar with, but what’s the reality?  It seems to me that, despite UN endorsement, UNESCO sponsorship, considerable NGO activity, a lot of individual effort – and much Japanese taxpayer cash – ESD has not fulfilled its promise.  A core difficulty is something we have seen already, albeit in different language.  Stephen Sterling terms it the central paradox of ESD:

 “ESD is seen as critical to any prospect of a more sustainable future, but … it challenges mainstream thinking, policy and practice in much formal education.  … The more transformative and holistic approach that sustainability requires is often difficult to implement, requiring systemic change and organisational learning over time ...”

That is: how do you change mainstream thinking through education when it's that thinking which determines what's to be studied?  Anyway, if education, per se, cannot contribute much directly to transformative change, how could ESD be more successful, when only a small proportion of teachers have even heard of it after 10 years of effort?

An artful response to this question is to advance a co-evolutionary argument: that successful ESD would lead to change in the demands made of education by society.  This would then reinforce the need for more ESD, leading, eventually to a positive transformative cycle.  Thus, the argument goes, those in power would soon come to understand the error of their ways.  This view, however, relies too heavily on appeals to false consciousness to be taken seriously.

Looking back, in 1995, on 30 years of rather ineffective environmental education, John Smyth argued that the adjective environmental had been a significant barrier.  This was because environmental education had become seen as something separate from established disciplines and practice.  Because of this, it was thereby outside mainstream educational activity, and could be safely ignored.  Much the same can be said today of ESD.  Rather than being an influence on education systems and practice, it’s become thought of, and talked about, as an alternative to these, or sometimes seen as equivalent to a subject or discipline.

This is particularly pronounced in higher education where much emphasis has been placed on ‘introducing ESD’, which hardly anyone had heard about.  This ignores the considerable sustainability-focused activity and expertise, that already exists in universities.

The result is that no one who really matters in education systems takes ESD seriously.  Although UNESCO has said that

"the need for ESD [has become] well established in national policy frameworks"

... the evidence for this is weak, if it exists at all.  Because of this, it’s unlikely that ESD will have a leading transformative role.  And as UNESCO points out, helping young people prepare to contribute to society’s deliberations about how to live, is a role for all of education, not ESD:

 ‘To create a world that is more just, peaceful and sustainable, all individuals and societies must be equipped and empowered by knowledge, skills and values as well as be instilled with a heightened awareness to drive such change. This is where education has a critical role to play."

So, is a more positive view possible?  That is, if neither education in general, nor ESD in particular, can play key transformative roles in the Mary Clark and UN sense, what might we look to?

For me, there is one credible possibility – the Sustainable Development Goals. The mix of policies and practices necessary to achieve these will involve all kinds of social groups and institutions working together.  These will be public and private, governmental and NGO, large and small, and local, national and international.  If we’re to be successful, we shall need to realize the UN’s transformational aims, which might just be part of a transformative process.

It’s clear that many groups already see the goals as a conceptual frame around which to build their policies, strategies, and evaluation.  For example, the UN Global Compact, with others, has produced a ‘SDG Compass’ to help business maximise its contribution to the Goals.  And many universities are already beginning to use the goals to bring their activities together.  For example, teaching, research, student activitism, work with community groups, a focus on social accountability, and institutional business practices.

As one activist said to me:

these internationally agreed goals give focus to the often sprawling scope of sustainable development.”

The Compass idea could be very helpful here.  All the universities I know well already focus directly on issues represented by the goals.

It’s less easy in schools, of course, but those interested in global learning might say that this is exactly what they have been doing for some time.  The advantage of a focus on the goals is that they make sustainable development more concrete.  After all, unlike ESD, which is, at best, a mysterious process, they are real, and you don’t have to go round persuading people of their merits.

So, what can schools do?  Well, if we’re to think about what schools might do in relation to the goals, it’s important, first, to think about outcomes.  At a basic level, perhaps we have 4 kinds of responsibility as citizens.  The first is to understand that the goals are very important – and why.  The second, is to think about them in relation to our lives and interests.  The third is being effective at discussing possibilities.  The fourth is to get involved and do something.

So what can schools do as a preparation for such a citizenly role?  And what are some practical ways forward?  Perhaps educators also have four kinds of responsibility: First, to help learners understand why the goals ought to be of concern to them.  Second, to help learners gain plural perspectives.  Third, to provide opportunities for an active consideration of issues through appropriate pedagogies, and then, fourth, to encourage learners to come to their own interim views about what to think and do, both individually and socially.  Doing less than this seems neglectful; doing much more runs the risk of indoctrination, because, we need to stimulate without prescribing.  And we need to see conceptual frameworks as scaffolding to build learning around, rather than as cages to restrain ideas and creativity.

This is, of course, a liberal educational view that puts student learning first.  This view says that educational institutions must always prioritise student learning over institutional, behaviour or social change.  It also says that we should make use of any change that’s happening, to support and broaden that learning.  In this sense, it’s fine for a school, college or university to encourage its students to become involved, and and through that involvement, to save energy, create less waste, and promote biodiversity, and, importantly, to enhance social justice through initiatives such as fair trade, provided that all these are developed with student learning in mind.

To do otherwise is to forget why educational institutions exist, as being restorative of social or natural capital is laudable, but not if it neglects or negates the development of learning.  Thus, a successful liberal education today will be taking these goals seriously in everything it does.  At its heart will be students asking critical questions of society – and of their institution – looking for the need for change, and getting involved.  In this sense, schools are important in nurturing thinking and learning about what might constitute appropriate futures, and in helping students develop skills and competences by doing so.

But there are limits.  Jensen and Schnack make the point with force that the crucial factor must always be what students learn from participating in such activities.

“… it is not and cannot be the task of the school to solve the political problems of society.  Its task is not to improve the world with the help of pupils’ activities. …  The crucial factor must be what students learn from participating in such activities …”

These limits to what we might expect to achieve, takes us, at last, to skills and competences.  Some, such as Andy Stables from the University of Roehampton, say we should be aware that school students are only ever likely to pick up a general and diffuse sense of concern about – and for – the world’s problems.  And, that this concern will be led or reinforced by any involvement they may have in the public discourse.  Stables says that such skills can only really be fully developed through practice in realistic contexts, that is, through life and work.  In this sense, they can never be fully developed because every time you practice them, you have the chance to further develop them.  They are, it might be said, in a constant state of becoming – an idea that is as old as Heraclitus.  It follows, then, that it’s foolish to think of skills and competences ever being fully developed by a particular stage.

And yet we see endless lists of such skills and competences to be developed by school children and university students by the end of a period of study.  For example, take these from the UK’s HEA / QAA :

At the end of the course, you should be able to …

describe the relationships between environmental, social and economic systems, from local to global level.

identify the root causes of unsustainable development, including environmental, social and economic actions, and the links to cultural considerations.

evaluate the impacts and interconnections between the activities of different generations, demographic groups and cultures, recognising that there may be tensions and competing factors between them

Should we not try harder to resist such temptations?

Because of all this, Stables says, the school curriculum should focus on the development of skills of critical thinking, dialogue and discussion / debate.  Through this, he says, young people would be enabled, should they choose, to take an increasing role in society and transformative social change.

In emphasising this role for the school, Stables privileges the development of skills above content.  He also stresses the iterative nature of learning, participation, and decision-making.  But, schools are most successful, perhaps, when they combine these elements, and Paul Vare & I have argued that it’s helpful to think of two complementary approaches, that we termed ESD1 and ESD2:

ESD1 – Providing guidance about behaviours, shifts in habit, and ways of thinking about how we live now. This tends to be heavily content-focused, information-based, and grounded in everyday practice.

ESD2 – Building students’ capacity to think critically and develop abilities to make sound choices in the face of the inherent complexity and uncertainty. This is much more dialogue and debate-oriented, and focused on controversial issues.

We argued that both these approaches are necessary.  Indeed, they’re complementary because people need to have relevant subject matter to debate and critically examine in their own contexts.  In other words, debate and dialogue, although always open-ended, cannot exist in a vacuum.  Neither can the development of the skills of critical thinking.

When Stables says curriculum should focus on the development of these skills he added that sustainability was only one possible theme.  Two implications flow from this.  The first is that such skills can be developed in many different contexts.  The second, is that it makes sense to focus on the skill using the context as a means to develop it.  And this has straightforward implications for teacher training which can be hard to talk about, because it seems to be so different across the world.  One thing is clear, however.  This is that it’s important to be realistic about what can and cannot be achieved.  From what I’ve said so far, it follows that we should not be preparing teachers to become conceptual experts in sustainability as that’s in no one’s interests.  Rather, we should focus on preparing teachers to help their students to develop the sort of skills and competences I’ve outlined.  That is, in relation to dialogue, discussion / debate and critical thinking.  We should prepare them to be pedagogical experts in helping young people consider such issues, and begin to develop interest and skills.

In my view, this approach would apply across the curriculum, and to everyone preparing to be a teacher.  It might vary slightly from subject to subject, because different disciplines provide distinct contexts in which to develop such skills.   It will vary depending on the age range being focused on, and probably to some extent from place to place.  Doing this would make a big difference if were to be made a core aspect of all teacher training programmes.

Up to now, I’ve treated this grand narrative of transformative change as if it’s possible – but I really do doubt it.  You’ll remember that UNESCO and the UN say nothing about how it’s to happen, other than pointing to education, which we’ve seen is inadequate to the task.  Mary Clark reminded us that, in previous times, it was philosophers that led the way, but these now offer little help in a public sense.  At a time when social media has democratized public utterances, philosophical points tend to get lost in the babble of communication.  So, it looks as if we’ll just have to muddle through.

But, to be positive again, there is a long tradition of doing this, and we humans are actually quite good at it, so all may not be lost.  Meanwhile, our young people can be helped to understand the issues, to understand how to make themselves heard, and how to make a difference.  Paradoxically, it may well be through such small-scale, on-the-ground, open-minded developments that the potential for transformation may well be enhanced.  This seems a suitably hopeful point on which to end.


Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations


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  • Well said here Bill. Are you going to turn this into a manuscript? I'd love to see it in press and relate it to my own work.

  • This is very interesting, particularly when I consider it alongside the reading I have been doing about Young's powerful knowledge and Beazly's curriculum hierarchy. I am wondering what we can make of the seemingly implacable situating of reason and certainty of the mathematical kind above the embodied knowledge of critical thinking and affective understanding? What is it that underpins their privileged positioning above all else? Perhaps if uncertainty and complexity could be made less daunting and more exciting, reason and certainty would lose (some of) its allure.

  • Superb and realistic article that I will add to my website (note the new address - After trying to promote community action for Spaceship Earth for several years in Polish schools and the ENIRDELM network with limited success, this article offers a splendid rationale and justification for an outcome of community action with a particular emphasis on planetary scale 'wicked' problems. Thusfar, I have not seen the SDGs as a central framework. Your argument convinces me. Many thanks again for your persistently helpful blogging.