This is the second part of our episode on SDG4 and education for sustainable development. In this part we focused on whether the right skills are taught in schools to equip people with skills and priorities necessary to bring about a more sustainable world rather than one characterized by competition and scarcity. Robert shared more information and examples from his work on education for sustainable development, and we discussed what approaches to education might be needed to help achieve important sustainable development and climate goals ahead of 2030.
"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.
Yeah, so this episode continues our conversation with Robert Didham on SDG4 on education. If you want to hear the whole thing from the beginning, just go back and listen to the previous episode first. In this part, though, we go more in-depth into the connections between education and development and sustainability, and we also talk about the difficulty in having an open and evolving approach to education on the one hand, but then also having to speed up social change to meet the goals of cutting CO2 emissions by 50% or more before 2030. We don't have much time left, right? And what kinds of education are needed to facilitate such fundamental changes in society? That's not an easy question, is it? Listen in and see what you think. Whether your objective or your aim is to generate, to argue for benefits in terms of economic growth, economic activities in a country, or the argument rests on individual fulfilment or understanding life... There are positives across those different ways to understand or argue for the importance of education. So in that sense, education or SDG4 should be well on track to be met. But you know... but still, I think there there's got to be some areas of contention because, for example, things such as home economics, like how do you budget the economy of your household, I don't think that's taught. And there's so many people around the world, you know, that are in debt. And I mean, whether it's student debt or other endless debt that really becomes- that really ties them down. And I think it's debilitating in many ways. So that isn't taught, I think, or things like, you know, gardening. How do you- how do you grow your own land? How do you relate to land and how do you cultivate that in sustaining- in a sustainable way ? Those things are aren't taught either. Instead, you could you could say that what's being taught- if we look at economics, it's Chicago school economics, which is, at a very fundamental level, at odds with the challenges of sustainability. Right? We cannot continue economic growth forever on a finite planet. So just to give a few examples of where we might not be teaching the right things, if we should be fulfilling the sustainability aspects of the SDGs.Erin:
I'm just wondering, you know, like you mentioned, lifelong learning opportunities that go beyond the classroom- I'm thinking about, you know, like home economics, what you just mentioned, Simon- Like, are these kind of things that were supposed to learn in other places outside of the classroom? I mean, like once we talk about lifelong learning and just learning from when you're born until you die, I wonder, you know, what the role of the educational institution is as opposed to like other places, like your parents, or your family, or friends or community or so forth, so yeah. So if you have any insights on that...?Robert:
Yeah, I think we- I mean, we can get into a philosophical debate about this, but I can't give you a clear answer in a global context of what is the right and wrong materials and topics to teach in school and curriculums because, I mean, different countries make their choices on their curriculum and they- I mean, they have the freedom to do that and that shouldn't be dictated to them. And that's also because there is context that needs to be dealt with in certain ways. There are cultural aspects in the curriculum. There is a level of- role in education that is- I mean, we don't have a great word for it in English or it sounds a bit too normative in English. We would say "social forming" or "socialisation". But there's- in German, it's the concept of "bildung" and then Nordic countries, it's the concept of "danning" or "dannelse" and this is a dual role of education, both the learning and the socialisation aspect. And it's not just it's social forming, but it's also the understanding of your culture and the values of your culture and where they have come from in a certain way. And also it brings in part of the aspects of citizenship and democratic learning. And then now we extend that much more and work towards a sense of global citizenship, too. So it's not just a national- based focus, but we extend to being global citizens and more understanding in a world context with sustainability. There are many different- there are certain topics that, you know, are considered more fundamental basics. Those are often usually the ones that are tested for in these international achievement tests like PISA and TIMSS- mathematics, science, language... But there are a lot of additional potential subjects that different curriculums put more priority on than others put on. And so, things like home economics. It's well taught in some curriculums, but it's not- it isn't in all curriculums. It doesn't even exist in some curriculums anymore. You get certain changes to things that would be related to home economics that are similar, where they teach- and they even teach on consumer- consumer rights, consumer ethics in certain courses. And I mean- and home economics has, as a whole field, has evolved significantly to include a lot of sustainability aspects in a lot of understanding of that. So, I mean, when you're- it's not just how to balance your budget, but it is to look at the issues about more responsible and more sustainable consumption practices. It is to look at thinking about when you're planning a menu for your family. I mean, even what are the impacts? Both "what is a nutritious meal, what is a healthy meal or what are meals that are healthy for the planet too, though?" might be brought in to consider. And so also a lot of what we have in education is not just the subjects that they teach, but the perspectives of how it's directed. I mean, so what are the critical questions that you're responding to when you're learning that material? Are you- are issues related to sustainability part of those critical questions? But that that goes another level deeper than just saying what subjects are taught. But how are they taught? It also goes back to some of the other aspects of the quality education, like, are they taught just in our lecture-based form? Are they taught only with the textbook or are students active and engaged? That comes back around to those earlier points. But we- those are hard to see when we look at these kind of SDG targets. I mean, the aspects here are a layer deeper than we can see with just the targets in SDG4.Simon:
So that's not- those aspects are not in the indicators or targets of SDG4 at the moment. I mean, if they're... If there would be a post 2030 agenda, maybe this is some of the things that could be looked at. Right? Like, what do you teach? And also, like you said before, I just want to repeat that it's not- I mean, how is it taught? What is instilled in the learner ? Is it the drive to compete or the drive to collaborate or is it both? I mean, so it's also these sort of almost meta-values that education instils in us as people. Right?Robert:
Hmmm. I mean, Target 4.7, which is the one that talks about education for sustainable development, education for global citizenship and the other aspects- the other kind of content areas that bring in to quality education... that has indicators that are probably the ones that take on the most kind of qualitative aspect. But they're- it's not that the indicators are not so well- it was, what was the mechanism for collecting that data? And I mean, without going into the specifics of it, I mean, there was an existing mechanism in place that they could work with and adapt. So there are questions there that countries respond to in their voluntary national [reviews]. And they do report on that- those aspects that give you some sense. At another level, though, you do have frameworks about that that go deeper, right? I mean, you see it more clearly in a few of the other goals in relation to climate change. There's direct reference to the Paris Agreement and then in SDG12, there is direct reference to the Ten Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production (10YFP), which is a much more detailed plan of the work. We don't see it in SDG4, but I mean through the lead of UNESCO, Ministries of Education from around the world, countries from around the world have agreed on certain frameworks that they are working on and collaborating on at an international level, and that includes the Education for 2030 and the Education for Sustainable Development for 2030 Frameworks. And those give you much more details. And very recently, a new report came out of UNESCO also about transforming higher education and how do we really get higher education to move forward where- Simon, you had mentioned earlier about kind of I mean, if we think, "what are the economic systems that are... and theories that are being taught now?" when, you know, when we're still arguing from a sustainable development side about the importance of circular economy, where we're talking about conversations about how- the level of need and requirement of degrowth. Or there's still some discussions- can we decouple material consumption from economic growth in a meaningful way or not? And if not, then how essential is degrowth? That's... I mean, but those conversations are still at odds with what a lot of people in MBA programs, the economic theories that they're learning. More and more, there are- I mean, there are institutions that are even, you know, that are seeing the need to better align what they do across the whole institutions with the SDGs, with the sustainable development agenda. There are MBA programs that are incorporating aspects of making sure that their students have understanding of sustainability, that are at least starting to raise some of these questions about economic theories, presenting alternative economic theories. And that's maybe the most important thing, actually, in education- it's that it's not about saying this one way of understanding, this one way of doing, is right, but saying there are many- there are many options out there. And it's up for each of us to figure that out. Not just on our own, but in dialogue with each other, in collaboration with each other, in our communities, in our societies, to look at the different possibilities, to critically reflect on what actually- what actually meets our needs in a meaningful way. And what can help us build a more sustainable future. And so, you know, that's maybe one of the values when we see a move to more progressive approaches in education and those that we work with in education for sustainable development is that you open up the questions. And you open up the possibilities of understanding and and ways of looking at things. It's not just a single way of looking at things and a single understanding that is right. And in fact, there isn't always one answer that is right. There are many answers that are right in different contexts. Or right for different people, right for different countries. And we have to kind of work through those in a meaningful way. And that ability to actually work through those questions and work through the different possible answers is one of the key values of education. And kind of in a context of the SDG4, in the context of how does education's role work with sustainable development.Simon:
You have been moving towards education for sustainable development, which is also a target in Goal 4 on education, right? And it's target 4.7. Let me just try to read it aloud. It reads, "By 2030 ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture as contribution to sustainable development." Wow. That's I mean, it's actually- I mean, it's very broad, but I feel it reiterates quite a few of the points that you have already made. But... And it sounds like such a very- almost like a shopping list of desirable content in education. But I'm wondering, like how do you go about working to make progress on such a target? Can you share some examples?Robert:
Yeah. And there's... I mean, there's many different approaches about how you do this. So it's not... I mean, it's not a one-size- fits-all, and ideally it's bringing in different approaches. So there was a- there's been kind of this dual understanding in ESD or a divide in the way we we've looked at education for sustainable development. Yeah... Early- earlier on, I would say. It's- we've kind of evolved past this, but at least within those specialists working around education for sustainable development. But the first kind of pedagogical interpretation was about education for sustainable development as a means to transfer appropriate sets of knowledge. And, even as that one evolved, I mean, originally it was just the knowledge. So sustainable development - we need to teach about climate change, we need to teach about biodiversity loss, we need to teach about the relevant topics related to sustainability. That expanded - I mean, very early on - from not just being about knowledge, but also about the skills and the values that are also linked to sustainability. But the second pedagogical interpretation is more aimed at equipping people with the capacity to make conscious and pro-sustainability choices in their daily lives, to work with sustainability in a meaningful way, and to have a kind of personal relationship between what their own lifestyles are and the wider issues of sustainability around them. And so part of the examples depend on what kind of layer or you're working at, in that- I mean, not if we don't put it as a divide, but let's say a spectrum. Because the knowledge is still important, the skills, the values are important, but how to learn to really relate all of that to the real world is critical in kind of fulfilling the more of a transformative learning process. So bringing knowledge content in. Sure. We- I mean, there's generally I mean, you either bring that into the specific subjects- you bring climate change into natural science, you bring issues about global inequality into social sciences. You maybe have, depending on the curriculum, you also have some places where ethics and values are strongly addressed in the curriculum. Or you also try to find ways to bring that in in more cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary ways. And you in a very simple form, you make a week, a "sustainability week", and all the subjects in the school work on teaching sustainability during that week. And maybe as part of that you have some project that the students do. They do a gardening project and develop a school garden that later be used. But actually a school garden is another really good example of practicing- when those are applied well in a school garden is made and they're out looking at soil ecology and how does nutrient cycles in the soil as part of that look working with compost, understanding how plants grow... I mean, all of those are great ways to work with beginning to learn systems thinking.Simon:
And to see how those natural systems function and even to see at some point, how can we interact with these systems in a way that is productive and in meaningful? Other parts where we can bring it in is also, I mean, engaging in more active learning, action projects in the local communities. Going out and having students identify some issue in their community, trying to see that issue in the context of sustainability, but then having the students actually start to investigate that issue. What are the reasons for this? How, why are there problems here ? How could they begin to come around solutions or understand what's at play? I can give a specific example that I like to share, and that was from a school in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where they did exactly this project, and the students were open to select what they wanted to research on and address. And the students selected that they wanted to look at pesticide- pesticide residues. I mean, how much pesticide kind of was in and around in their local environments- used pesticides from agriculture. So different grades of the school, different groups were set up with doing different types of investigation. Some of the students went out and did water sampling and actually looked at the water of different streams and they got the teachers facilitate this by bringing in experts that can help them learn how to do the water sampling and doing soil sampling. They actually got help from the medical university in Chiang Mai and they sampled many students' blood. They actually found that many of the students had quite high traces of pesticide residue in their blood. But other students went out and did more social investigations. They went and interviewed the farmers about their practices. They even went to the local markets to find out what's been sold already in the local markets. They talked to people, consumers in the markets."Would you be interested if there were organic produce or would you be interested if there were even reduced pesticide produced? Would you pay a premium? Would you pay more for such food?" So they carried out this huge investigation, collected all this different data. Then they come and they work and put it back together and kind of paint- bring a report together out of it. At the end, when they were ready, they called together kind of a community meeting or town hall meeting that brought in the different people that they had talked to during this project, brought in the local government, presented all their findings of the research, and then at the end of it just kind of said, "okay, now let's have a discussion. What can we do about this?" And that led to really good discussions. I mean, it's a really interesting idea, actually. You... You know, if I go out and tell people, "hey, look at these problems in the environment", I might receive a lot of tension. But if you let the children do that and the children can actually provide evidence, they don't get quite the conflict behind it. We take their innocence a little more. And those discussions led to agreements and decisions that actually then got the support of the local government to carry forward some of the steps about how they could begin to reduce the amount of pesticides used in agriculture practices in the surrounding communities and help address some of these issues of very high rates of pesticide residues found in the environment. So that's- you know, that's a beautiful example of a very holistic approach and holistic project. But we can bring these in and other steps and easier steps. And a lot of it is also in focus about how you deal with any of the learning. What, I mean, do you focus on- deeper reflection of your own learning if you want to facilitate lifelong learning? One of the key things is just, at the end of any activity, you go back to the students. What did we learn in this activity? What did you find out? Why do you think it worked that way? What could you have done different to change the results of this? Just those simple questions about "what did we learn from this?" Then we can apply that later in our life to any situation, any experience."Oh, what happened in this experience? I was having this interact- conversation with this other person and all of a sudden they got angry." I can then maybe have, through the education, actually have the emo- my own emotional awareness and my own critical reflection and think,"Did I do something that set that off? Could I have done something different that would have been better?" You know? And so some of it is very soft in the way you do it and very subtle in some sense. And you can't specifically put it into instruction in a curriculum. But you can provide that training to teachers during their training about how they can work with critical question, how can they work with kind of emotional awareness and emotional sensitivity in the classroom.Simon:
It's great stuff, Rob. So these examples are sort of success stories or stories of hope. And the message to me is, is that there is a transformation that's happening in education. And education is such a core that pushes the understanding of our position here. Right? So I think it is very potent and has a lot of potential. But I do want to ask, I mean, if we are facing these challenges, like, let's say, imminent climate change, global warming, and we have to try to keep the global warming to say something as ambitious as 1.5 degrees Celsius, we do need to take action very quickly. Do you think that that that those success stories that you share with us - do you think this is enough or what do you think is necessary to make more rapid changes going forward?Robert:
This is actually a very hard question for me, partly because it comes to kind of a pedagogical conflict I've been thinking about a lot, and that's in the focus and in the framework that I work with around education for sustainable development. And what I'm saying with the act of learning and the search for new solutions. I mean, this is all targeted towards an idea of, how do we create transformative learning? And we actually reach the point where learners have the ability to go out and find that new knowledge and redefine things in a meaningful way and can then be key actors in the transformation towards a sustainable future - or, I mean, actors in the transformation of society in one way or the other, but ideally, hopefully towards a sustainable future. But you're actually in that skill and competency development. You're working towards that capacity for transformative change. But when we talk about especially the, you know, the 2030 targets for reducing carbon emissions by 50%... That is so close now and needs such immediate reductions. When we are working in groups on sustainable lifestyles and groups that have mapped out what is a 1.5 degree sustainable lifestyles, these have very clear steps of what can be taken and what needs to be done. Prescription. You know, it's a prescriptive way. There- we look at older traditions of education. The transmissive approaches to education. Tied with those transmissible approaches is what we understand as the normative approach to education, where it is very- it conditions."These are the values of our society. This is the knowledge. This is the way you should understand the world." And we- the transformative approach to education in ESD turns very away from a normative approach and opens up to that pluralistic approach where we understand that there are different ways, there are different answers, and we work together to find what is right. But I do appreciate that in the immediate forward future of actually addressing the 2030 targets of a 50% reduction in CO2, the only way we may get there is not just prescriptive approaches, but very strong kind of normative regulation potentially might be needed. But this is also very contrary to my own kind of pedagogical beliefs and underpinning. And I've been struggling with this issue about- how do we actually deal with this from an educational point of view? Can we both have kind of a need to address prescriptive and normative aspects towards achieving sustainable lifestyles on one side in the short term and still achieve transformative learning on the other side? And I say this because I think it's actually quite critical if we take this point out further. The 2030 reductions to 50% - we have clear prescriptions of how we could do that, where we can make the cuts, where we can make the reductions. But let's go beyond that to the 2050 targets for a net- zero carbon society. We don't have the prescription of how we do that. What we know is that it requires a substantial transformation to how we shape and organise our societies. And that takes the creative transformation that the work I do with ESD is engaging with. And then it raises this bigger conflict in me. What happens if all we do is some kind of strong regulation, some kind of strong way to force the reductions towards 2030? Then can we turn around and say, "okay, we've met that short-term target". Now we have to really think in a much more creative way about how we transform society towards 2050, because they're, at least from a pedagogical point, they are almost at odds with each other. And I have been thinking in my mind, can we bring these together? Can we blend them in a way that actually works? And at the moment, I don't have a clear answer for that. And I think it's- I think it's actually maybe something where though the the educational perspectives here do need to help influence the wider conversation at a wider level of sustainability and in the steps forward because we need to think about- that there are two very different things that we're talking about going forward, making immediate and real reductions and the bigger transformation towards a sustainable society.Erin:
Wow. Yeah, that is definitely a tension.Simon:
Yeah, but thank you for sharing those very honest reflections with us. I wasn't... I hadn't been able to visualise that there's actually a conflict there. But maybe we should just say that there is no real conflict. Maybe personally... At the moment, I'm quite pessimistic. Maybe we won't achieve the 50% reduction by 2030. Or maybe whether or not we achieve it, it's not so important. There will be some countries that will attempt to, you know, top-down regulate to achieve those targets. Other countries will not. But still understanding the constraints and the roles that we play as individuals and communities are in that challenging environment, you know, between now and 2030, but also between now and 2050. That really requires many of the values and skills that you have been explaining to us over the last hour or so. So I think- I don't think it discounts that approach that we have been discussing more today.Robert:
We let those and the politicians who have created many of these problems make the hard cuts that need to be made in the short term and the new generation that is actually learning under these perspectives of education for sustainable development will be the ones who make the transformation beyond that. And that's, where do we put the focus of- when we look at these issues, when we look at problems, how do we focus? And if any of you think about kind of your own experiences, maybe not in education for sustainable development, maybe it was environmental education.Simon:
And think about what how what you learned and what that was like. You kind of- there's kind of three levels that often happen. The first level of environmental education is where they primarily highlight all the negative impacts that are happening. Look at the pollution. Look at the massive amounts of waste. And that's where it stops, though. And not any going into,"What do we do about this?" What does that actually do for the learners? I mean, it's really demotivating to be told,"look at all the bad things that are happening and no way to work with it." It is important in the overall part because it does set there is an urgency that needs to be addressed. But at the next level, we get into what - using the words from climate change -are kind of a mitigation and abatement approach, starting to look at how do we reduce those negative impacts, not eliminate the system that creates them, but at the end-of-pipe, how do we mitigate and abate? And so there we start talking about recycling and we talk about energy efficiency and we talk about eco-labelling. So how can we- how can we consume a little more responsibly in a system that is still having negative impacts? Not how do we change the system to stop those negative impacts, but just how do we kind of clean up a little bit at the end? And again, that starts to get us there, but it also... And it starts to say that there is a level of individual responsibility that is important in this work. But where it's taken a while to reach and not all forms of environmental education and not all forms of education for sustainable development reach is where the learning is also focused on an approach for active solutions - in the search for new solutions. Often solutions that are strongly community-based or based in local context are based on actually going out and doing things, using your hands, using your hearts, as well as all the knowledge you're learning and using your head, but engaging with your hands and engaging with your hearts to really find that, "hey, we can make an impact, we can make our communities better, we can make our societies better." And when education reaches that level, that's where we get that kind of transformative potential out of it. If we only stop with education of- okay, we're going to teach you about climate change, we're going to teach you about how everything is going awry, and all of these tipping points that we are closely coming up against and we don't really think there's any solution to that will achieve... I mean, that's not going to be a way that gets young youth to want to really engage. I mean, although we have, of course, many youth climate movements that are actually trying to stand up and pull and say that, "no, we need something different." And they are also arguing education needs to be different. Education needs to be providing them with the skills. The youth themselves are saying it, but in saying that, they're saying it needs to not just be telling us about the problems, it needs to tell it- it needs to be helping us know how we can actively work with this and make a make a real impact, a beneficial impact, and do things that can meaningfully change these issues and problems.Bob:
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