Questioning the role of Education for Sustainable Development in the Post 2015 Agenda

Jennifer Budden

As we move closer to a new iteration of the Millennium Development Goals, MDG goal 2 for Universal Primary Education (UPE) has proven inadequate when dealing with issues of equity and quality (GMR, 2012; UN, 2013a; UN, 2013b). At the same time, human impact on the environment is posed as potentially “the biggest development challenge post-2015” (GMR, 2013: 4). This short reflection brings these two challenges together and raises the question of whether Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is the transformative approach needed to realize quality education for a sustainable future.

Just as sustainable development is to economic growth, Education for Sustainable Development is forced to take the back seat to other educational priorities, such as literacy and numeracy. Others argue, if properly understood and implemented, ESD is the guiding principle for future education around the world (Howe and Covell, 2007). Alas, confusion over what ESD actually means and what pedagogical approach is most effective makes implementation in the classroom difficult.

What the underlying values of sustainability are and how we teach it need to be called into question. ESD needs to be transformative, not just focused on preparing students for a “green economy” or “sustainable growth”.  Even with exhaustive definitions there is still no consensus on what the pedagogy for the umbrella term “education for sustainable development” actually looks like (Eilam and Trop, 2010). After an initial enthusiasm for environmentalist pedagogy in the classroom, there came a backlash against this approach for being value-laden indoctrination. Educators were criticized for being environmentalists rather than unbiased environmental educators (Hug, 1977; Hungerford, 2010). This put educators in the contradictory predicament of having to teach environmental values in a value free manner (Howe and Covell, 2007).

In addition to this confusion and the political nature of teaching about the environment, teachers around the world are struggling to explain to students the phenomenon of climate change without overwhelming them. When confronting the effects of climate change, children and teachers are left in a state of environmental despair. Along with this challenging loss of agency, specifically in North America and Europe, youth are increasingly disconnected from the environment due to play with technology, parental concerns over security, and lack of access to natural environments, especially in urban areas (Louv, 2008; Monbiot, 2012a). This also raises issues of environmental inequity  – who gets access to greener parks and who can afford summer camp in the wilderness (Strife & Downey, 2009)?

Reconnecting youth to the environment is seen to increase creativity, reduce obesity rates, as well as lower rates of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) (Monbiot, 2012a; Sigman, n.d.; Cobb, 1959). It is also argued as the best way to get children to care about the environment. This follows a philosophy of hope that when they get older they will be more concerned with environmental degradation (Macy, 1991; Friere, 2006). It is through this emotional connection environmental education programs will lead students to think through their feelings, clarify their ethics and values, come to their own conclusions – and act (Ellam and Trop, 2011).

Selby and Kagawa (2012) take a direct approach. They argue that climate change education should have children tackle issues head-on and encourage envisioning several different scenarios, including the most devastating, to work through them and find solutions. They critique ESD for being green washed and putting too much emphasis on the “green economy”, rather than moving beyond sustainable development. Selby (2012) advocates for a truly transformative approach. This means taking a hard look at how our current socio-economic system is leading us on a track to self-destruction. He poses the question of whether development should be taken out of the equation and opt for “education for sustainable contraction” and when this is achieved transition to “education for sustainable moderation”.

In developing countries, many already feeling the effects of climate change are looking to prepare their children for immediate adaptation to increased extreme weather. But adaptation does not necessarily address the causal issues of climate change. In Madagascar where I undertook my master’s thesis field research concerning environmental education in 2012, teachers reported receiving sporadic training concerning cyclone responses (Disaster Risk Reduction).  They expressed that their lack of subject knowledge limited their ability to teach children about the environment properly. Students articulated that the materials and lessons teachers provided did not satisfy their wish to know how to make change in their communities. Much like the inequalities of access to nature in developed countries, Malagasy National parks and conservation areas tend to charge a fee so exorbitant that people who live by the parks cannot afford to visit them.  Visiting the parks is seen as a “thing tourists do.”

In addition, indigenous knowledge is often seen as traditional and backward. The environmental education materials I was evaluating, though developed in collaboration with Malagasy educators and academics, came from a Western tradition of literature.  The traditional tavy slash and burn techniques used pitted conservationists against local Malagasy agricultural communities. Educators need to avoid dismissing and instead engage with traditional practices and culture to find ways to connect to that intimate knowledge of the land – admittedly a difficult task.

But here in lies the issue; the societal and values dimensions of ESD or climate change education, previously seen as too divergent, have only recently been revisited and made central to curriculum (Howe and Covel, 2007; Selby 2010). Climate justice and injustice issues are largely left out of developed country environmental curriculum (Selby, 2012). For real change we need to reengage with our values of justice, knowledge and power, and examine whether these are in line with Education for Sustainable Development or whether these values can push Education for Sustainable Development to a new level of environmental responsibility.

While the diverse pedagogies of ESD remain at odds, perhaps it goes beyond pedagogy and a re-imagining of education systems that is required.  Teacher training, and school functioning with a focus on innovative whole school change could address the need for both a quality education and a repositioning towards connecting to and understanding of human relationships with the environment (Howe and Covell, 2007).

As a global society defining new Millennium Development goals, proposed to be the Sustainable Development Goals, should be committing to mainstreaming Education for Sustainable Development. Within the discussion on  “quality education” we should be including environmental education and the values that underlie it as central to this debate, as no comprehensive curriculum for the future would be complete without it.

The transformative change in education and society at large that the UN High Level Panel calls for will not be made if we continue with “business as usual” and allow environmental degradation to be profitable. By connecting students to their learning through their natural environment, education that looks beyond “sustainable growth” and closes the loop between the effects we have on our environment and the effect the environment has on us could be the transformation that education and humanity needs to achieve the world we want.


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