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Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

The responsibilities of schools towards the goals and their learners

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As part of my reflections on last week's St George's House consultation, here are a few thoughts about schools and the SDGs:

If we’re to think about what schools might do in relation to the goals, it’s important to think about outcomes, and at a basic level, perhaps we have 4 kinds of responsibility as citizens to ...

  • understand that the Goals are important
  • think critically about these in relation to people’s lives and interests
  • weigh arguments and discuss possibilities and practicalities
  • get involved whilst reflecting on the appropriateness of actions

So what can schools do as a preparation for such a citizenly role?  And what are the practical ways forward?  Perhaps educators also have four kinds of responsibility to ...

  • help learners understand why the goals ought to be of concern to them
  • enable learners to gain plural perspectives from a range of viewpoints
  • provide opportunities for an active and critical exploration of issues
  • encourage learners to come to their own views and to get involved

Doing less than this seems neglectful; doing much more runs the risk of indoctrination as 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 through that involvement, explore the goals, enhance social justice, save energy, create less waste, promote biodiversity, etc.

But there are limits.  Jensen and Schnack make the point with force that, ultimately, 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 …”

Being restorative of social (or natural) capital is laudable, but not if it neglects or negates the development of learning – and it's easy to think of approaches that do that.  Thus, a successful liberal education today will be taking these goals seriously in what it does.  At its heart will be students asking critical questions of society (easy), of their learning (trickier), and of their institution (risky)  – 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 begin to develop skills and competences by doing so.

In these ways our young people can be helped to understand the issues, to ask pertinent questions, to understand how to make themselves heard, and how to make a difference.  And this can be in schools across the age range.

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