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Pearson Sponsored Series

Education in the 21st Century

Education for Sustainable Development

By Jim Witkin


It’s been two years since the UN introduced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a call to action embodied in 17 specific goals to tackle global issues like poverty, access to education, gender inequality, and climate change.

Since that time, the business community has become highly engaged in addressing the SDGs by aligning their own sustainability targets with one or more of the 17 goals. And this call to action is also reaching every level of the educational system, as schools around the world teach lessons related to sustainable development and otherwise incorporate sustainable development into learning.

Take for instance, the Argyle Primary School in London where for today’s geography lesson, the students are studying deforestation and discussing how their actions impact the problem. In history class, they are researching the lives of significant people who have championed human rights. Later, in science class, the students are working in teams designing “floating” gardens to teach them how farmers in developing countries adapt to changing climate patterns.

The Global Learning Programme (GLP), a government-funded initiative, provides these educational resources for free and funds training by working with several partners. In England, around 7,000 schools are registered, representing nearly a third of the eligible state-funded schools in the country. These schools can now embed these lessons about the SDGs throughout their curricula.

The lessons offer content but also focus on teaching specific skills – like systems thinking and collaborative problem solving – that are recognized as key to solving complex global problems.

“It’s a shift in mindset,” said one of the Argyle teachers describing their global learning curriculum. “Every time you are teaching the kids about something, it’s encouraging them to ask, ‘why are things like that, what have we done to make it like that, and what can we do to make a difference in the future?’”

Programs like the GLP, that combine content plus emphasize new skills and attitudes, are now more common as demand is growing worldwide for these types of courses.

For example, the World’s Largest Lesson, that has been supported by companies like Pearson, provides lesson plans and other educational material related to the SDGs to any school anywhere in the world. Materials are available in ten languages, are segmented by age group (from age four to 18), and range from short presentations that can be offered at a school assembly to complete lesson plans.

Its website also offers a Student Action section with suggestions for how students can put what they learn into action on solving problems like hunger, inequality, and poverty.

At the college level, demand for courses related to sustainability is also strong according to a 2016 survey co-sponsored by the organization Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME).

The survey, conducted among students in college-level business programs around the world, found that 75 percent or more believed strongly that the curriculum should include coursework on environmental sustainability, business ethics, and the SDGs.

To meet this demand, colleges and universities are taking different approaches, according to Julian Dautremont-Smith, the Director of Programs at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

One approach is to create standalone programs devoted exclusively to sustainability or some specialized version of it in specific disciplines like management (think green MBAs). “But at the same time, there’s a parallel movement to integrate sustainability content into traditional programs and coursework – like the sciences, liberal arts, and engineering – because sustainability as a concept should be interdisciplinary,” said Dautremont-Smith. The latter approach ensures that students of all disciplines are exposed to crucial lessons of sustainability.

Jonas Haertle, the Head of PRME, has observed a similar shift. “We see that overall trends point to much deeper integration of sustainability and ethics teaching and research throughout entire curricula,” said Haertle, adding, “even in disciplines where sustainability has never been a traditionally central concept, we see this taking place.”

He cited the example of the London College of Fashion, a PRME signatory, that is reporting widespread integration of ethics and social issues in their courses as sustainability becomes a guiding principle throughout the school.

Andrew Bernier, who holds a PhD in Sustainability Education and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Arizona State University’s Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, believes that standalone sustainability programs could eventually be phased out as schools become better at embedding sustainability concepts into every department.

He also believes you can’t teach the topic using traditional methods and expect to develop learners who can create sustainable outcomes. “Sustainability is an action-oriented discipline,” he said, “so to simply fill the student’s bucket with a lot of information on the subject essentially does an injustice to the field of sustainability.”

Instead, to develop “change agents” he advocates teaching a set of specific skills. First, teachers should foster attitude changes among students to create more resilient individuals who are better able to change and adapt themselves.

“Sustainability is the capacity to endure, so for a professional individual to endure they need to have the skills to bounce back, to be resilient and respond to how the world is constantly changing around them. If we can’t produce a sustainable individual, we are not going to produce a sustainable society.”

Next, it’s about systems thinking, “how well do they connect the dots and understand the relationships between concepts as opposed to concepts in singularity,” said Bernier.

And it’s about engaging with the local community so students can put into action what they’ve learned. “Being disconnected from the community makes it really difficult to foster their community connections and to do localized sustainability projects,” he said, “so it’s the idea of taking students out of the classroom but also bringing speakers and community members in.”

The notion that integrating sustainable development issues into teaching and learning is not new. The idea was first formalized by the UN, in its Agenda 21 published in 1992. But since then, and especially with the call-to-action embedded in the SDGs, these efforts have blossomed, taking many different forms and emphasizing new skills, new attitudes, and a cross-disciplinary approach.

In fact, education for sustainable development is explicitly recognized in SDG#4.7 on education, which calls for all learners to “acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development.” After all, tomorrow’s sustainability leaders are in school today.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Education

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Jim Witkin is a writer based in Silicon Valley and London focused on business, technology and the environment. His work has been featured in the New York Times and Guardian newspapers. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School.

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