Is the way we teach young people the answer to achieving all of the SDGs? May East of Gaia Education wants to change the way we view learning to help re-design human presence on the planet

Worldwide, two billion babies will be born between now and 2030. Each one will reach school age and need access to high quality education. In the same period more than 1.2 billion young people will transition into adulthood and begin looking for a job.

In 2015, the global community launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) addressing issues related to poverty, hunger, health, education, energy, work, industry, inequalities, cities, consumption, climate, ocean life, ecosystems, peace and partnership. Achieving these goals requires a profound transformation in the way we live, think and act; and the role of education in achieving all of the 17 SDGs is being given a heightened emphasis.

Providing an education where both the teacher and students explore not only the physical world, and the power of knowledge, but also investigate their own thinking patterns and behaviour will be critical for the successful implementation of the SDG Goal 4, which envisages quality education for all.

UNESCO reports that while Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is increasingly becoming mandatory in the national curricula worldwide, much more is required to incorporate ESD into teacher training. 

Delivering quality education in the UK

Through our research on Goal 4 for Measuring up it’s clear that significant policy priority has been given in Scotland and Wales to providing the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development (Target 4.7).

In Scotland for example, all learners are legally entitled to learning for sustainability and every practitioner, school and education leader has to demonstrate learning for sustainability in their practice within a whole school approach.

Wales aims to prepare students to be 21st century global citizens, with seven themes that link closely to multiple SDGs at each key stage of education: wealth and poverty; identity and culture; choices and decisions; climate change; consumption and waste; natural environment and health.

Across the UK the picture is more varied, with some schools, colleges and universities engaging in ESD programmes and others not. But there’s no UK wide evaluation of this so it’s hard to understand progress and the impacts of these programmes.

Worldwide only 7% of countries report that ESD as mandatory, this suggests there is a significant gap in the capacities of teachers to deliver an education that fosters ecological imagination, critical thinking, independent thought, and a greater awareness of the interdependence of all life.

How do we achieve this type of education?

Should we favour Paulo Freire’s invigorating critique of the ‘banking’ model of education, which regards students as mere receivers of education, devoid of creative impetus?

Or should we challenge educators to equip our students with the practical skills, analytic abilities and philosophical depth to reshape the human presence in the world?

By this, I mean an education that replaces the extractive consumer economy with one that eliminates the concept of waste, uses energy and materials with greater efficiency, and distributes wealth fairly within and between generations.   

I mean an education that promotes interdependence and working together to reverse climate change and increase the bio-productivity of the planet, to create a collaborative rather than a competitive society for all.

I also mean an education that makes quality of life, rather than open-ended economic growth, the focus of future thinking.

At a practical level, I believe that every school should establish a school garden that not only produces food but is an essential underpinning of all subjects on the curriculum.  A school garden, an edible ecosystem, is a microcosm of life. 

A school garden underpins classroom studies in ecology, biology, physics, and mathematics, relating them to issues as diverse as soil, climate, integral water management, the cycles of carbon and nitrogen, the cycle of life, reproduction, habitats and construction, nutrition and health, and the crucial role of microbes in in connecting humans with 'nature'. In this way, students would learn about the place humans occupy in the biosphere, not as masters exploiting nature, but as co-creators of resilience with the entire construct of life. Without this central understanding, we humans will continue to err. 

We need to focus on retraining teachers and educators to give them the skills needed to think beyond their core subjects, moving freely across disciplines and encouraging students to embrace multiple worldviews to design solutions to humanity’s most pressing challenges.

‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’ 

There is a significant danger in misinterpreting the 17 SDGs as separate disciplines that need to be dealt with one by one and in isolation. Our academic disciplines, government departments and international institutions operate in a siloed expert-lead fashion that makes such whole systems thinking and collaborating difficult to achieve.

To address this Gaia Education and UNESCO Global Action Programme have recently launched the educational tool ‘SDG Community Implementation Flashcards’ containing more than 200 questions investigating the social, ecological, economic and worldview aspects of each SDG.  

The 1.8 billion young people around the world today represent a dynamic, informed, and globally connected engine for change.  Local stewardship and global citizenship should be cultivated at every stage of human development.

The poet Yeats once said ‘education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’  This is the task before educators: igniting the fire of the current and future young people, harnessing their aspirations so that they can in time re-design the human presence in the planet.

May East is CEO of Gaia Education and co-led the Goal 4 chapter of Measuring up.

If you want to help achieve the SDGs in the UK join UKSSD today