Schooling for Sustainable Development in Europe

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

There's a new book around: ‘Schooling for Sustainable Development in Europe’ .  This

"... examines the implementation of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) programs in schools across Europe. It describes and analyses how individual countries and the region as a whole have established teaching and learning methods to help students develop the competencies needed to be part of a sustainable society. The book also reflects on the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) in terms of what has been done, as well as assessments of what more could be done, across Europe."

I should declare an interest, as I have written Chapter 4: Education for Sustainable Development (ESD): A Critical Review of Concept, Potential and Risk.  This is the Abstract:

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) can be thought of as the bringing together of a wide variety of educational strategies aimed at addressing the existential problems of human socio-economic development.  But, as we near the end of the UN’s ESD Decade, what can we say about how ESD is conceptualised and interpreted; about its coherence and usefulness as an idea; about how well it fits within education systems and schools; about its potential as a strategy to change educational experiences across the globe; and about the uncertainties and ambiguities at its heart?  This chapter examines these questions and puts forward a number of issues for both practitioners and policy makers to consider in the UN’s post-Decade global action programme.

Think of this as my contribution to the end-of-decade celebration, although not everyone will like what this chapter says.  At its heart are three particular ideas:

1. If sustainable development only makes sense as learning, then effective ESD must always be a contribution to sustainable development, and our understanding of sustainable development will determine how we think about ESD, and, as Sterling (Pers. Com.) reminds us in a paper for UNESCO's celebratory end-of-Decade conference, about education itself.  It follows that, for ESD to have meaning, and therefore effect, it needs to be grounded within a conceptual framing of sustainable development itself. There are, of course, different conceptual framings of sustainable development, and so more than one approach to ESD will endure, and even UNESCO acknowledges that some of these will continue to resemble environmental and development education. This is as it needs to be in free societies as we struggle to make sense of what we have done, and keep on doing, to the biosphere's systems, flows, cycles and sinks. A good educationally-critical sort of question to ask a teacher, trainer or lecturer who says they are involved in ESD is how what they are doing relates, and contributes, to sustainable development. If they cannot provide a convincing answer, then scepticism is in order about whether they know what they are doing, and whether learners will benefit as much as they might expect, or at all.  Another question would be to ask whether they think of ESD as a process or something to be taught, with appropriate conclusions being drawn if the response is the second of these.

2. Educational institutions need to prioritise student learning over institutional, behaviour or social change whilst making use of any such change to support and broaden that learning.  In this sense it is fine for a school, college or university to encourage its students to save energy, create less waste, or get involved with initiatives such as fair trade (or Fairtrade), provided that these are developed with student learning in mind, including an umbilical link to their actual studies.  To do otherwise is to forget why educational institutions exist.  Being restorative of social or natural capital is laudable, but not if it neglects or negates the development of appropriate human capital, i.e. student learning.  Doing all this in collaboration with students, and with the communities within which institutions are socially, economically and environmentally embedded, will aid everyone's learning, and perhaps even sustainable development.

3. Being socio-economically transformative remains an ideal, with being restorative of natural and social capital examples of would-be welcome outcomes.  There is, however, little sign of such transformation's being achieved any time soon, or, indeed, that UNESCO is particularly convinced that it's a necessary goal for ESD.  This is, perhaps, just as well as the evidence that ESD could lead transformation is not convincing.  Indeed, why should it be, when it is a focus on sustainable development that is needed for a transformative effect, not a process of education such as ESD.  It does seem persuasive, however, that a focus on transformation, per se, is not necessary to make progress towards that goal, and that it is small-scale, on-the-ground developments that are needed to create the conditions for transformation.  The ground-breaking work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with its circular economy focus, is an example of such an initiative.  Although not couched in the language of sustainable development, this is transformative in nature, and it is setting about its educational business by working within business and educational organisations.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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