Witness to the SDGs

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations

I'll be off to Atlantic College in a couple of weeks to take part in a witness session in relation to education and the SDGs.  I've tried to be provocative in my prepared input.  See what you think:

In 2015, the UN resolved: [1] “… between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. … .”

You’d have to be an incurable optimist to think that all this – and the other targets embodied within the sustainable development goals (SDGs) – will all be fully met, but it would be morally reprehensible not to take the goals seriously.

Schools, charged as they are with the initial education of the young, have a particular responsibility in nurturing thinking and learning about what might constitute appropriate futures, and in helping students begin to develop skills and competences by doing so. [2]  Andrew Stables says 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 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.  It follows that it’s foolish to think of skills and competences ever being fully developed by a particular stage. [3]  Because of all this, Stables says, the school curriculum should focus on the development of skills of critical thinking, dialogue and discussion / debate. [4]  Through this, young people would be enabled, should they choose, to take an increasing role in society and transformative social change (of all kinds).

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 my colleague Paul Vare & I have argued that it’s helpful to think of two complementary approaches:

  • [i] Building students’ capacity to think critically and develop abilities to make sound choices in the face of the inherent complexity and uncertainty.  This will tend to be dialogue and debate-oriented, and focused on controversial issues.
  • [ii] Providing guidance about behaviours, shifts in habit, and ways of thinking about how we live.  This will tend to be content-focused, data-based, and grounded in everyday practice.

Schools seem to find it easier to do [ii] than [i], but both are important, and so in relation to the goals, I’d argue that schools should:

  • 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, critical exploration of issues
  • encourage learners to come to their own views, and to get involved

Doing less than this seems neglectful, but doing much more always runs the risk of indoctrination.  This is, of course, a liberal educational view which prioritises student learning over institutional, behaviour or social change whilst making use of any change that’s happening to support and broaden that learning.  In this sense, it’s fine for a school, to encourage its students to explore the SDGs and get involved, and if this enhances social justice, saves energy, creates less waste, promotes biodiversity, etc, that’s all to the good.  But it can’t be the purpose of a school to solve the problems of society or to improve the world through students’ activities.  The crucial factor must always be what students learn by participating in such activities, which, because learners never learn what teachers teach, will not necessarily be what those in authority desire. [5]


This is not wholly new, of course, but it's a new synthesis prepared for the debate at Atlantic College.


[1]  sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld
[2]  It’s no surprise that international testing focuses on science, maths & reading not on sustainability skills or competence
[3]  Despite this, we find endless lists of such skills and competences for school and HE students to develop
[4]  These might be critical questions about [i] society (easy), [ii] their own learning (harder), or [iii] their school (risky)
[5]  UNESCO has written 255 learning outcomes for the SDGs.  See: unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002474/247444e.pdf

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations


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  • I think you could be more provocative, but you've provoked a response from me - one you've heard before, but I hope this time to air it more coherently.

    The SDGs literature is littered with claims about the state of the world that need to be critiqued - especially by teachers before they embark on goal related teaching. If they don't, they risk grounding children's knowledge and understanding of the world in some highly questionable assumptions.

    Two areas are extremely important and illustrative of other problems with the goals:

    a. The international poverty line has been set at $1.90 / day, already a controversially low (and massaged) level(1); yet SDG target 1.1. is 'By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day.' The message this sends is that extreme poverty will be eradicated is everyone is living on $1.26 a day or more. A scandalous downplaying of poverty.

    b. The UNSDGs are inextricably linked to the UNFCCC and the 2015 Paris Agreement (target 13.a). The Paris Agreement implies that limiting warming to no more than 2C of warming would be an achievement, it really wouldn't. In the words of Professor Kevin Anderson, 'let's be blunt about it, [2C of warming] will kill a lot of people, they will be poor, they will be a long way from here, they will be low emitters and they will typically be non-white'(2). The scientific and political reality of course is that limiting warming to 2C is highly highly improbable, the UNFCCC framework convention is non-binding and unworkable. 3C, 4C of warming is far more likely(2, 3). The message of the UNFCCC and by extension SDG goal 13, however, is that with mass scale futuristic negative emissions technologies (NETs) and widespread voluntary and rapid reductions in carbon emissions we can still bring Climate Change under control. It is fanciful thinking. Prof Anderson labels this 'collective delusion and wilful ignorance' on the part of the public and national government's who (when you look at their policies on energy etc) have apparently 'abdicated responsibility' for tackling climate change[2].
    Framing both issues (which are of course interrelated) in the way the SDGs do, is a misrepresentation of the reality of the situation. Strong scientific and moral cases can be made to say that poverty and climate change are at least TWICE as bad as the SDGs would have us believe. In terms of scale, the difference between the world presented to us by the SDGs and what is actually happening, is significant. The difference between 3-4C of warming and 1.5-2C of warming is huge. If 3-4C warming is the likely future, this demands a very different approach to teaching and learning on the subject. Likewise if, as many development specialists attest[1], the actual percentage of people living in poverty is closer to 60% of the world’s population, not the 10% claimed by the World Bank, teaching on poverty would also look very different.

    If we accept the world, as presented to us by the SDGs, we allow the goals (and their advocates) to shape our thoughts and feelings about the state of the world. Our thoughts and feelings influence our teaching and in turn, the thoughts and feelings of our pupils. Do we really want our schools to be grounding their teaching in rose tinted understandings of poverty, climate change and how these issues should be responded to?

    However uncomfortable it might be, we surely should seek to redesign ESD from a more realistic view of the world; it might then look very very different. Perhaps that's the problem?

    (1) Dr. Jason Hickel has written extensively on issues surrounding the formulation of the international poverty line and wider problems relating to the SDGs. See: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/nov/01/global-poverty-is-worse-than-you-think-could-you-live-on-190-a-day and https://theconversation.com/time-for-degrowth-to-save-the-planet-we-must-shrink-the-economy-64195 for an introduction.
    (2) Professor Kevin Anderson regularly delivers public lectures on climate science, the UNFCCC process, the prospects for limiting warming to 2C and the spurious claims made by advocates of NETs. His latest public lecture can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/-6j1tlWCrhs
    (3) Prof. Joel Wainwright and Prof. Geoff Mann map the possible trajectories of global politics in a Climate Change impacted world in their new book: Climate Leviathan: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/557121/climate-leviathan-by-joel-wainwright-and-geoff-mann/9781786634290