In this episode we talked with our good friend Robert Didham. He is Centre Director and Associate Professor at the Centre for Collaborative Learning for Sustainable Development Faculty of Education, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences.
We talked to Robert about education for sustainable development and its place in Agenda 2030 as SDG 4. He explained how SDG 4 takes a comprehensive focus on education when compared to earlier approaches such as the Millennium Development Goals. We then discussed some of the different facets of education such as a more qualitative view on education that is being promoted including focus on youth, technical vocational education and training, gender, jobs and education as lifelong learning.
This episode is divided into two parts to allow for more space for discussion. Part two focuses more on Robert’s work on education for sustainable development, and what approaches to education are needed to help achieve important sustainable development and climate goals. But that will be in our next release.
At small correction shall be noted: At 2:20 in the recording, when Robert was referring to the international framework that is the follow-up to the Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development, he misnamed this framework by referring to it as the Education for 2030 framework, and it should have been correctly referred to the Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) for 2030 framework.
"About Sustainability..." is a podcast brought to you by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), an environmental policy think-tank based in Hayama, Japan. IGES experts are concerned with environmental and sustainability challenges. Everything shared on the podcast will be off-the-cuff discussion, and any viewpoints expressed are those held by the speaker at the time of recording. They are not necessarily official IGES positions.
Hi, how are you? In this episode, we talked to our good friend and former colleague, Robert Didham. He now works as Associate Professor in the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences. He's an expert on education and sustainable development, so that's why he's a perfect person to talk to about SDG4 on education. In today's episode, for example, we discussed how the definition of education is ever evolving, resulting in a focus that has shifted from providing access to primary schooling to now offer lifelong learning opportunities for everyone. And since you're already here, do join us and listen in. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?Robert:
I'm based at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, and there, I am the director of a centre that's both a research and teaching centre, the Center for Collaborative Learning for Sustainable Development. And I also hold the UNESCO Chair on Education for Sustainable Lifestyles. And through that work, I've been actively involved with both programmes run by UNESCO and UN Environment on Education for Sustainable Development and Education for Sustainable Consumption, and have had many different experiences, having worked in a lot in Asia during what was the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, which went from 2005 to 2014. That was followed up by Global Action Program on Education for Sustainable Development that I was an active part of. First, I co-chaired the Priority Network on Advancing Policy, and later I co-chaired the Network on Teacher Education. And that program, the Global Action Program, ran from 2015 to 2019. And as that came to an end, there was of course, a need to further strengthen the link of the role that education played within the Sustainable Development Goals. And a new framework came out in 2020, that is the [Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) 2030], with a real focus on including and strengthening the role that education can play in supporting the sustainable development agenda and really starting to think about the role that education plays in the transformation that is needed to achieve the global sustainable development agenda.Simon:
Thanks, Rob. So, well, we can say that education is important for sustainable development in many ways. And for example, SDG4 focuses on ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promot[ing] lifelong learning opportunities for all. It seems very broad. I understand that education has been the focus not only for the SDGs, but actually also in the predecessor to the SDGs, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Can you say a little bit about, like, what's the focus on education in relation to sustainability today compared to what role it played for development 20 years ago? How is it different?Robert:
I mean, we have two different levels. The first level - the same in the relationship between the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals - is that we actually see in the Sustainable Development Goals a joining of two international development tracks. And that was more of the track on environmental sustainability that had started out of the Rio Earth Summit and followed up through that the continuation of different sustainable development agendas. And then there was the human development track, which was more in focus in the Millennium Development Goals. While there was one Millennium Development goal on environmental sustainability, it kind of fell off the actual agenda there because they didn't put any targets behind it for measurement. And in education, we've had the same. The framing of the Millennium Development Goal 2 on education really came out of a move- an international movement around education for all, which saw the value and very large importance that education plays in supporting human development goals and that education has very strong correlative links with- as you improve education, you achieve improvements in other development goals - increased health, reduce poverty, etc. But you also see this link that that now in the SDGs, you have the combination of a need to focus on sustainability within education and you have an uplifting of actually a focus on the quality and the relevance that that education has to the world around. And if you look at the original Millennium Development Goal 2, it really was only focused on achieving universal primary education. And the main focus there in the measurements was on the access and attainment of education. Now, while there's several other features that we can go through that make the SDG4 much more comprehensive, I would think one of the key and most important differences is that statement, right in the overall goal about quality of education. And it's not just education for all, but it's quality education for all. And that is really a distinct difference between the Millennium Development Goal 2 and SDG4.Simon:
So we went from quantity to quality.Robert:
Yes, but we keep- we keep some level of quantity and some level of attainment, but we move to quality.Erin:
Okay, but how is quality defined?Robert:
That is a trickier issue and there's probably many different definitions on what is quality. But I mean, one aspect of quality would be the relevance of the education for- I mean, at the first level, employability, real world skills, life skills, ability to actually learn things like democra- how to engage in democratic processes, how to be part of the decision making all around what a sustainable future would look like, that there is a certain level of relevance and application of that education. We have had other traditional trends in education where, you know, it's primarily based around "can you memorise this, can you repeat it in a test?" and how do you actually use a lot of that information in the real world is not always clear.Erin:
And is there kind of like a universal standard for education? Like at the end of secondary school, you need to have achieved X, Y and Z, or is it kind of like determined based on the specific context?Robert:
There is not one universal standard. I mean...Erin:
And when we talk about quality of education, there's also a debate on really what that means and how we would assess it, most importantly. And what often happens is, there's kind of this ideal understanding of quality education, which is about equipping learners with the necessary knowledge and skills and also the values and the competency development that allows them to engage in the world in a meaningful way. Assessing that can be a very challenging thing. So we fall back a little bit in terms of how do we measure quality to what can we assess. And so if we were saying that there was a universal standard for quality of education based on what tests are available, we would be talking about the tests like PISA and TIMSS and the tests that are run by the OECD, that are the kind of comprehensive tests that are supposed to show at different at different grade levels what have been the level of achievement. So not just attainment, but also the achievement that students have. So when we get beyond the MDG where we talk about access and attainment, we start to then move into quality, where we talk about achievement. And then ideally, when we're actually talking about the relevance, we're talking about the adaptability of that education to apply in different ways, in meaningful ways in your own life. Testing that adaptability aspect is the more challenging part. So what we end up testing is the achievement, but by testing only the achievement, we kind of set some- we kind of set that into certain boxes and confines of what that achievement would be. There are other discussions within the field, and especially in the specific area of education for sustainable development that are really looking to talk about what are sustainability competencies and how we work with this. And this is what we often call to some of the higher order thinking skills, our critical thinking and our connectedness to sustainability, our ability to think in systems and think holistically, our ability to solve problems, etc.Simon:
Maybe if we look at some of the targets that are under SDG4, maybe we can sort of exemplify where the quality aspect comes in, because I think that, for example, I mean, if you look at inclusiveness, I think Target 4.1 focuses on education for both girls and boys and Target 4.2 focuses on early childhood education. So I suppose that means daycare and kindergarten and what's been taught to the children there. So there is a focus on on different on the human experience at different levels, you know, from very early childhood to- even to while you're working. Because there's also that focus on lifelong learning, isn't there? There's a whole lot of things in the different SDG targets, isn't there, Rob?Robert:
Yes. And an overall focus on enabling lifelong learning. And that is- I mean, that could be one of the key ways that you talk about what is quality. Your "what you've gained", your skills about how you actually find knowledge and look at problems and solve problems. It goes beyond what you learn in the classroom and it's something that you can continue to use in your everyday life. You can continue to use in your society and in your work with your community on sustainability, that you can carry that work forward as learning processes and all of that, because you've not just gained a set of knowledge, but you've gained a broader set of skills and competencies that allow you to continue to learn from your daily experiences and to critically reflect on them in a meaningful way. But we do see a lot- I mean, the first outcome targets still aim a little bit more about access and attainment, but it's a much- it really broadens. If we think that MDG2 was focused on only primary education and, while it was a very successful overall - the work to increase access and attainment in primary education, it did not achieve 100%. And so the ambition and SDG4, when they not only have primary education, but now they say secondary education for all, as well as early childhood and pre-primary education for all, and also add in not access for everyone, but that there is equal access to opportunities for higher education and technical and vocational education. I mean, this is really broadening the mandate of what is education and what it is and really pushing forward that a very strong understanding. And to me, I take it as an understanding where we go back all the way to 1948, where education is enshrined as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is an extension of that human right to education at a scale that is, I don't know, three or four times multitude over than what we had before. So, I mean, it's extremely ambitious to extend educational attainment and achievement to that large of a scale. But in there, when you go into the indicators around the targets and you go into some of the specific aspects, especially when you go into Target 4.7 where they really highlight education for sustainability and for global citizenship and they start to look at really talking about what is the components of quality education, you have much more than just focusing on the numbers. You really start to have a strong discussion about what does good education look like, how do you provide that? And when you go into the means of implementation about a safe and inclusive learning environment, about good quality of teacher training, which is fundamental. I mean, if you want good quality education, the quality of teacher training is primary. I mean, this is really the foundation. At the next level, it's the learning environment and especially that they have safe learning environments, that they have learning environments that are inclusive and that all people have access to. But I mean, it's a second step under good teachers. I mean, there are examples of, you know, good teaching happening under the tree and in a village. That's not the ideal setting, but it can work if you have a teacher who's inspired to do so. So there's quite a broadening of understanding of what are really the components that lead to a quality level of education.Bob:
Just kind of stepping back to the targets, again, I read 4.1 being equal in access to both primary and secondary and 4.2 being pre-primary and then 4.3 being technical, vocational and tertiary education. But then 4.4 is substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, skills for employment. What's kind of the difference between 4.4 and those first three? It seems like approaching the same thing from different angles, unless I'm not quite getting it.Robert:
With the first [target] on quality, primary and secondary education for all. You have- I mean, it's actually as education for all.. . I mean, the way it was written then is basically universal access to primary and secondary education or universal attainment of primary and secondary education. And then putting the quality on front enhances that dimension. There is a difference in the kind of universal access and attainment that is in relation to primary and secondary, as well as also early childhood education. Then with the higher education, it's equal access. It's not that everyone should attain a higher education level, but everyone should have the opportunity to do so. And there- especially there should not be barriers based on income level and the cost of higher education. That means someone who really has a desire and has a strong ability for higher education cannot access that higher education. But when we get into the relevant skills for work, it's talking about one of the important things, of course- that education needs to deliver and strengthen. So if we take the first three are really about, I mean, more of the structural level of "what is provided" and "what is made available", that when we get into 4.4, which is relevant skills for work, it's talking about part of what does education actually provide to the learners.Bob:
Okay, that makes sense.Simon:
It's almost- I mean, the logic is maybe also like, you start with education for kids and then you have education and in primary, secondary and then access to universities for those that feel- or they are equipped or are interested in going that in that direction. And then it moves towards keeping the door open for having education opportunities while you're working, you know, so that you- so that this lifelong education aspect comes in. It's not like education today, I suppose, should be seen as something that we do our entire life and not the way it was perhaps traditionally viewed, where you educate yourself to become a blacksmith when you are, I don't know, 12 years old and then you are a blacksmith. But... whereas today, maybe there's a greater flexibility.Robert:
And there's a continued learning. And I mean, if we're putting this relevance of the totality of the sustainable development agenda, I mean, we are all very aware that- I mean, some of the knowledge we need, some of the solutions we need - we don't have them yet. We need to work to find new solutions. That takes new learning. That takes new understanding. That takes each of us or is able to not get locked into the scientific understandings that we gained potentially in education 20, 30, 40 years ago because that science has changed. Our understanding of the world has changed. We need to know how to bring that in and adapt that to our overall kind of our self, our understanding, and constantly work with those issues. And we- so much of sustainable development is also context related and the solutions that work are context relevant. So we might have a solution here that can be applied in Norway that works well. But if we take that to Japan, if we take that to southern Africa, the same solution won't work in the same way in different context. So also having that ability to learn from context and learn to appreciate those subtleties is a lifelong learning skill that takes a long time to develop and facilitate the growth of- through an educational process. But that is something that ideally people will take forward throughout their life to work with issues related to sustainability and beyond.Simon:
So you're saying that- I mean, so it's interesting to me, it's like SDG4... Both have this important focus on education and carry forward this important focus on education, but broaden it and turn it into a task that we have to deal with or tackle or... You know, I mean, lifelong learning. It's something we have to do our whole lives. But it also opens the door for bringing in new kinds of knowledge, rather than just saying you teach something and you there you have arrived at it and now you go out and you do your thing on the labour market. You could say it's challenging - an outdated perspective on education and knowledge, saying that this changes as we move through time.Robert:
Yeah. I mean, for sure, I think - maybe not everywhere, but at least in our understanding of the work that education is doing. I think, relatively, say, across the world, there is a good understanding that education is no longer working with kind of finite and fixed knowledge. Knowledge is dynamic, knowledge is changing, knowledge is adaptable, and the learning process has to work with that. I think most teachers, most educators would appreciate that. I mean, education is, as a learning process is also a process of discovery and a process of finding knowledge and finding inquiry and investigating our- each learner has to be able to do that and not just receive knowledge in a transmissive way. However, with that said, when we look at practices of education, I mean, especially when we look at even practices in universities where there's still a tendency, a large tendency towards lecture-based learning, I mean, lecture-based learning goes all the way back to the very first universities, where, if we put it in perspective - that you didn't have printing presses, people didn't have access to books. The lecturer sat at the front of the room and read the one book to all the students so the students could have access to the knowledge in that book. And at that point, it was very powerful. I mean, that was the knowledge and that was the only way you could get the knowledge. But it was kind of treated as "this is fixed knowledge and that it doesn't change, so you just receive it". But a lot of our educational approaches have not changed, even though our understanding of what education is supposed to do has changed dramatically. We haven't always evolved in quite a way. I mean, that's- it's kind of rude to say that to many, many colleagues and many teachers around the world who are very progressive in what they do and are finding new and innovative approaches to engage students in active ways. But... I think still we see often, kind of, the approaches to learning are still in a transmissive way. And we- based on a textbook and based on sharing information from a textbook. But that is changing and that is part of the change that is being talked about in SDG4, when quality education and lifelong learning play such an important role in the actual framing of the goal. But those are maybe subtleties that are, you know, missed outside of the education field. Specifically, when they look at the SDG4, they see the quantitative aspect still, because the targets - "we have to achieve these targets, we need to show the numbers that we are achieving the targets", but it within the goal and within the context of that goal, there's a lot of these more subtle features that are about the progressive change of education to really enhance the relevance of the learning, to really enhance the skill and competency development of the learners.Bob:
I've got two questions that I kind of want to dig into. One is, I'm curious about what this change in the educational system looks like in practice when you're going away from being transmissive and- is it just being more interactive and making sure that students are coming up with- are discovering this for themselves in an interactive process with the teacher or... Yeah. What does that kind of look like ? is one [question]. And then the other one is just, looking through the indicators - they, at least on the site that I'm looking on, they seem a little bit vague. There's nothing that you can effectively really measure on the ones that I've looked at so far. So how are we doing and how do we know how we're doing?Robert:
There are a lot of dimensions to what kind of approaches to quality education look like, and, especially when applied to quality education for sustainable development, there's a lot of discussion around this too. But, I mean, one of the key ones which you highlighted, Bob, is the role of active learning and the engaged learner, that the learner is really out doing a lot- doing the discovery in different ways that can be in the classroom, doing different projects, doing different forms of investigation, working with problem-solving. That can be even going out and doing some kind of real world engagement and interaction in the learning process. Um, it's also important when we talk about active learning that it's coupled up with collaborative learning. That the learning process isn't just an "each individual learner kind of in their own"- and actually it's a very big shift within the educational field that, I mean, the kind of the more historical tradition is a very kind of competitive sense in education. If I want to be the best student in the class, that means everyone else has to be worse than me. Um, and it's kind of been treated that- I mean, you as an individual are the one trying to succeed, to be the top, not changing it where actually learning is a cooperative process and we learn together, we work together and in doing so, we actually enhance each other's learning. And part of learning is based on dialogue and deliberation with each other. And if we think about how do we apply- what that means in terms of sustainability, if we are going to work together to actually define and determine what a sustainable future should look like and what we want from it, we need that process of collaborative and cooperative learning to be part of that. But there are other features too, and some of it goes even- I mean, at the kind of overall framework for learning that has created the worldview or the paradigm that is shaped. And so here we- I mean, we have a kind of "what is the context of a framework focused on sustainable development" and looking at things in more integrated ways, looking at things across systems, understanding the interconnections, not just dividing things into different boxes and not seeing the whole, but having little parts and separate parts. And that's been- I mean, we have disciplines and subjects that take on their own areas of expertise, but traditionally, there's not anything really bringing those together. It's not to say that disciplines are not valuable. They've been extremely valuable through- from the Enlightenment Era forward to advance knowledge and advance understanding. But as they've gotten more niche and more divided, they've also ended up working to separate our knowledge into these finite parts and into these separate areas where we don't have an overall meaning and overall understanding, and we can't see how the environmental and the social and the economic and the cultural dimensions of sustainability work together in a meaningful way. And we are challenged to talk about the complexity and the tradeoffs that we have to- we have to deal with when we're talking about sustainability work because of. So at one level, it's fundamental- There's a fundamental part about changing the way that we work with knowledge, that we work with learning, reshaping the way that we kind of effectively order that understanding in our own minds, how we order and encode different knowledge, different information that we're receiving, and what is the the larger schema that we bring it together with. And then that also implies into the way that we look at and investigate and how we we go out and draw knowledge from different parts of the world. But there are- I mean, there's many different parts of really what make up quality education. And another aspect we talk- I mean, we can talk about what are the teacher's roles? And another exampl- an important example there is the responsibility of the teacher to meet each learner at his or her own place and really to engage those individual learners in the learning in a way that motivates them. Finding what you can work with as a teacher to bring them into something that is exciting, not just teaching for a class where you are only focused on the handful of students who are the top students and come to the top and you kind of teach to them and you let everyone else fall behind. But really making sure that time is spent to engage each and every student. And that's- that can be difficult. That can be difficult because of, in a very simple structural way, the- I mean, rule, I mean, policy set- policies on what are the student-teacher ratio. And I mean, so when the educational policies are focused on improving quality of education, I've already said that the training of teachers is fundamentally important. Another thing that you start to see is that the number of students per individual teacher - that ratio that is set in policy begins to lower because they see the need for the teacher to be able to spend time with each student individually and engage them is critically important to the quality of education. So there's many different facets that can enhance quality of education and more than I can go through here. But active, engaged learning is really important. The understanding of, I would say, looking at- changing learning to be a cooperative process and then working with interconnections in learning, not kind of- not separate and not independent knowledge, but to really see things in interconnected ways. These are some of the big focuses in terms of the work. In terms of the indicators and where education is - on the second question, that is challenging. I mean, we see- we have things around. I mean, still all the reporting is on access and attainment and what is happening there. And there are still improvements being made, but there are still challenges that go back even to the work in the era of MDG2 that we found challenging globally. And that's- I mean, early on in MDG2, there was tremendous success made in increasing enrolment rates in primary education. And if the rate that that was occurring had continued through the 15 years of the Millennium Development Goals, we would have achieved 100%. However, when they get- in some countries and in some places around the world and different places, different reasons, but as they got to maybe 80% access rate- enrolment rates, they found that the last 20%, the same solutions that had worked before, that didn't work for the last 20% because these were different groups of people that were either- they were more vulnerable, they were more marginalised groups. How do you provide the same type of educational solutions to people living in extreme poverty? How do you provide the same types of educational solutions to nomadic communities? So there was a formula that had worked. I mean, finance [was] part of it. I mean, international finance and overseas development aid supported to drive these solutions forward made tremendous impacts. But they got stuck at some point- that same solution couldn't continue to solve it for- same solution for everyone. There have been some efforts to how we address the marginalised groups more, but it's still a challenge. And then with the requirement to extend that not only from primary up into secondary and also down into early childhood, I mean, it's a large- it requires a large amount of resources. And those I think where we see that there's still challenges - those resources aren't being met in the way that the commitments are. And that's both in terms of national financing of education. There are targets for how much percent of national financing is spent on education, and many countries aren't meeting that. There's also targets related to overseas development aid (ODA) in education and, I mean, a lot of the ODA targets aren't being met. And then there's something very specific nuances in education finance, where a lot of that is being spent actually lands back in the country- of the financing country. So a country - a wealthy country - gives financing to give scholarships for for people from another country to come to their country to take university in their country. That means the actual financing, the money is spent back in the country who gave them money. And we also know that often leads to brain drain and takes off- takes the best people from a country out of the country. And they, in many cases, they don't return home. If we were- if that financial aid was really being fair and just, it would be focused much more on building up and strengthening the educational institutions and especially the higher education institutions within the target country or the recipient country.Simon:
Why we invest in education, why governments invest in education, you know, different forms of education at different stages and age groups. And sometimes those objectives- seems to me that they are at odds with each other. Because also, I mean, if you should be crude, like what's the payoff of an investment in education? It's a long term thing, right? Because I mean, I don't know - what's the end goal? Is that increased meaning of life or increased life satisfaction at the level of the individual, or is it jobs, job creation, contribution to the economy of the country, or is it ticking a box on ODA so that you have done something on education and supported some money to UNESCO that takes care of education? So I think there are several different odds. But it- but is it challenging, Rob, when the payoff - I don't like to use the word 'payoff', but - when the benefits of investments in education seem to be so far down the line, I mean, will we even meet them?Robert:
Um, I think it... It's not that it's difficult. The issue is that it sometimes doesn't take priority over other development investments that have shorter return periods. But with that said, it is very well understood. It's very well documented the importance of education and the centrality of education in achieving socioeconomic development and human well-being. And to do that in a way that is sustainable. I mean, just name a few of the things. I mean, education is recognised as having one of the highest long term returns on investment of all development goals. It's- it is long term. I mean, you're talking... You invest in education in a... For a generation of of youth. You're taking 10, 15, 20 years of investment until you really see the benefits back. But the benefits that they see, I mean, are clear links between- increased levels of educational attainment are linked to improved health, improved disease prevention, reduce child mortality, increased levels of equity and inequality in societies, larger levels of civic participation and engagement in decision making. And then the ones that really- I mean, you know, the policy makers like are, there are very direct correlations between increased levels of educational attainment and increased individual earning potential, as well as increased national GDP growth rates. And they see, I mean, this is a economic formula that has been tested around the world for, I think, 50, 60 years now that has looked at data and shows that as, at a national level, as the attainment level, the educational attainment level goes up by a year at a national level, that is roughly correlated with an increase in GDP growth rate of about a half percent (increase for each increase of- standard average increase of a year of educational attainment). So it's that- I mean, when I say a "half percent growth", you know, that may not sound like large, but when you look at what growth rates are, that's really quite a significant improvement. If you're talking, you can go from what they say, what they have in the go here of moving from universal primary education to universal secondary education. I mean, that's another four or five years of education. Then you're talking 2% increase in growth rateif that was a full attainment that you hadn't had before and that's the level of increase you achieve. So I mean, it's has very strong, very strong correlations to many of the other development goals. And that is why education as a whole has been highlighted as one of the very fundamental means of implementation for all of the SDGs. And you also see education as roles of education listed in several targets of other SDGs. I mean, if we want to work on the SDG on climate change ([SDG13]), there needs to be better education about climate change. We need to have a global understanding about what we're dealing with, the seriousness of it. We need to have further work on that and we see those tied to many things. We see those both in the social goals related to health and equity. We see in gender equality. We see educational targets related to the environmental goals where there are stronger scientific needs. We see education as a primary means of implementation. And then, as I've just mentioned, the correlation to the economic goals and, you know, employability and economic growth aspects are all very correlated with education's role too.Simon:
Hey, Simon here. The conversation ended up being a bit longer than we usually release, and we wanted to be mindful of how much time you can devote to an episode. So we are splitting this episode here. Please join us next time for the rest.Bob:
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